declutter.

Grace Hur illustrates the journey towards finding the hidden beauty of emptiness in her powerful and thought-provoking nonfiction piece, “declutter.”

200%.

It’s a steaming mid-July day. The moving company is supposed to arrive in a few hours, but we still haven’t packed all our belongings. The morning flies past as my sister and I scurry through the jumble while our parents work their way through every corner of the house. I cover the vintage dishes in bubble wrap while my twin tapes the boxes with please-don’t-throw signs. The moving truck arrives, and we skip lunch. I watch the frustration rise as the huffs of my parents and the puffs of the movers’ ring across the tiny house. Tension mounts as the clock ticks closer and closer to 6 pm, the time when the house needs to be entirely cleared and when we need to be out of the house. It’s 5 pm, and all the big furniture has moved to the new house. I circle around empty rooms I once labeled as my bedroom. It’s a strange feeling because the space is much more open but the air still feels tight. I am soothing my cat in the master bedroom when I hear my mom cry out from the backyard. I soon realize that we have less than twenty minutes left to clear the entire backyard, the shed, and the garage, which never came into our minds to clean before. We grab as much as we can and drag them into the house. We build a Pisa tower with cans of paint, rolls of paper half-gnawed by rats, and branches once transformed into magic wands in sixth grade. While we stuff them into the remaining plastic bags, I feel adrenaline rush through my veins as I give quick glances at my watch. It’s 5:55, and the front door swings open. It’s the new owners of the house. They’re early, and they look mad that we aren’t out of the house yet. By 5:58, one of them, a man, throws a tantrum, yelling in a language I do not recognize, while kicking our boxes almost out the door. At 6:00, we are out of the house, but the boxes of junk are still sitting on the driveway. I feel I am in the center of attention as the man and my mom continue to shout, each in their world of defense. But all I feel is the shame upon the tower of junk we drag out of the house in front of the entire neighborhood. It is at that moment that I feel the rich flavor of humiliation.

 

For my whole life, I have lived in absolute disarray, in ways both physical and psychological. However long I live in a particular house, it is only a matter of a few weeks when cleaning becomes the mission of Hercules scrubbing the Augean stables. Laundry stretches across beds, plastic bags cover kitchen floors, uneaten food occupies the fridge, and impossibility settles upon the carpeted closets to be vacuumed inside. I am Atlas crushed by the weight of possessions. It’s not that I am entirely underprivileged, but luck always finds a way to slip by me, mockingly brushing past my life. Family matters get worse and worse until arguments become a weekend ritual. While financial problems and conflicts build-up, self-confidence plummets. No matter how many times I make wishes while blowing candle after candle on birthdays, nothing changes. Life has become a continuous cycle of clutter. Time chases me down, while clicking submit buttons at 11:59pm’s, rushing back and forth to meetings and pointless destinations, to-do lists are now a Sisyphean struggle. I am a maximalist.

 

180%.

Quarantine is helping me change that. I catch onto the Gen Z trend of reorganizing bedrooms to fight off boredom. At the same time, my mom introduces me to the world of “minimalism,” and with it comes a series of nagging to clean my room. And so it begins. A journey towards emptiness. 

I embark on a 1000 item challenge. First, the decade-old desk hutches, then the roll of flyers picked up from volunteering, booklets from university fairs, artworks from kindergarten, and dried-out pens leave the house one after another. Shelves and drawers are emptied until I can finally clear the dust off them. For weeks, I move from room to room, peeking into every furniture, poking at every binder, bag, and box, wondering what I can get rid of. It is in these moments that I feel a surge of triumph rushing through. I partake in a game of no wins, competing against my maximal self. Instead of searching for gold coins and treasure chests, I search for trash. As I progress further, I no longer spend time looking for things and where I’ve left them. Frantic runs to the lost-and-found during after-school hours, and passing of missing water bottle sketches are reduced to a minimum. By getting rid of things, I find more value in everything I possess.

 

170%.

A warning pops up, ‘Are you sure you want to remove them?’

“Yes.”

Remove. Remove. Remove. 

Satisfaction bubbles up as my fingers work their way through the phone, removing every

app I haven’t used in the past month. I’m getting better at this thing, this endeavor of

emptying.

Unsubscribe. Unsubscribe. Unsubscribe.

I feel less chaos in my inbox. I set a time limit for notifications.

Delete. Delete. De-

My fingers pause mid-air. I zoom into the picture, and I see my mom laughing, from three years ago. A rare picture of her. I find myself smiling until my mouth becomes a counterpart of my mom’s. I decide to keep the valuable ones.

 

140%.

I am determined to dive deeper into minimalism. I wish to leave behind as little waste as possible. However, it’s not an easy choice for a maximalist, and I realize that it must be a task of joined forces, involving the entire family. While I give up my unconditional obsession with cute stationeries, mom makes wipes out of old cloth. Dad makes trivets out of leftover wood while my sister ceases to order food. Checkouts at groceries become a polite series of no thank-you’s to plastic bags. When we decide to abandon the use of shampoo, I begin to wonder if minimalism has brought me a lifestyle backward in time. I feel like I’m fighting the currents of modern society. But it feels good. Good to be doing good for the earth.

 

110%.

I watch my possessions, leaving me one by one. Some move on for the better. Unused craft supplies, almost-new clothes, and childhood books are donated. My heart drums the loudest when they get sent to people in need, to people who have recently settled into the country. In the face of the current pandemic, I see a pattern of selfishness among people, stocking up their unnecessary needs, driven by public psychology. And I want to advise them, declutter.

 

100%.

I sit in front of the windows of the master bedroom, watching the late afternoon sunlight flooding in. Instead of squeezing in through furniture and possessions, light fills the entirety of the room, where my cat bathes. It’s my favorite time, the romantic period of the day, and a newly acquired luxury. I realize that home has become a space containing meaning. Time runs at a slower pace these days. In truth, I am nowhere close to the end, nowhere close to being a minimalist. But more than ever, I find myself living the moment. I tend to see the big picture more often. I no longer try to pursue perfection but, instead, find satisfaction within my weaknesses unique to myself.

 

There is beauty in being decluttered, beauty in emptiness, beauty in finding the internal beauty. Most importantly, I feel so light. It’s still the same old life, even plainer than ever, but I see it in a new light. I now wish to live a life where I fill the emptiness with “me.”

 

Grace Hur is currently a junior attending Sir John A. Macdonald Secondary School. She loves to voice herself through many mediums, her favorite being Instagram. She calls herself a passionate writer and a student leader but in truth, she’s just a typical teenage girl with a terrible sense of direction.

Piano Player Fingers

In “Piano Player Fingers”, Yong-Yu Huang evocatively captures the dynamics of sibling and family relationships.

My mother said that Janet had piano player fingers: each segment arcing into the next, flexing in unison because that is how the human body is supposed to work. But the first thing I remember about Janet’s fingers is how she stuck them too close to my face and I, a teething toddler, promptly chomped down on them. A baby’s gums does nothing but coat everything in the slime of innocence, but she hollered for Mom anyway.

 

Janet gave up piano when she hit seventh grade because basketball was all the rage. Mom dragged me to all her games where my feet dangled as I saw on the bleachers. And when the people stepping over us to find seats stepped on my white sneakers, she would console me with those lemon drops she always kept in her purse when I knew that Janet liked basketball—she’d come home at seven from after-school practices, sweaty and beaming and starving—but I wondered if she started dribbling because she was sick of etudes and sonatinas, or if it was because she liked the way the ball arced into the hoop, a motion as natural as the way her fingers used to dance over the ivories.

 

The summer before Janet’s freshman year, we moved and sold the piano. My mom cried when she sold the piano; Janet cried when she said goodbye to her friends. And I sat, squashed in the backseat between Janet and her basketball shoes, glad that we were moving. I was sick of spending Saturday afternoons at the court with her.  In reality, I had nothing better to do. Janet had been going to sleepovers since she was five, while I had made a grand total of five friends in the twelve years that I had been alive. Some tangled organ inside of me sang that if we were moving, it meant that Janet wouldn’t have any friends either and so maybe, just maybe, she’d be my friend.

 

Seventh grade premonitions don’t come true. I learned that the day Janet strutted into high school and made it onto the varsity cheerleading squad freshman year. She dyed the ends of her hair platinum blonde and swiped mascara over her eyelashes as soon as Mom left the house in the mornings, sliding me the piece of toast with the most peanut butter as a peace offering. Or a bribe.

 

The high school didn’t play basketball or soccer or volleyball—they played lacrosse and waved pom poms at football games. Janet shot right up there on the social ladder, skipping rungs and accepting hands that boosted her up. Mom made me go with her to Janet’s first cheerleading performance. A couple of my new friends had sisters on the squad as well, so I sat with them, starry-eyed over the football players and watching as the cheerleaders flipped and danced and contorted themselves in perfect coordination: a red and white being of undulating limbs and high ponytails, high off of the attention fixated upon them.

 

That was the first and last time Mom saw Janet execute a perfect backflip: arcing through the stuffy gym air and landing, shoes squeaking against the varnished wood, without a wobble. Over sweet and sour chicken that night, she told Janet that she had found out that a retired concert pianist lived two blocks away and that he was willing to give lessons and let her practice on his piano.

 

“Such a waste of your lovely fingers—they’re so talented! And all those flips and tricks—what if you injure your fingers?”

 

I smirked. All of Janet’s friends were on the cheerleading squad, and if Mom made her quit, she wouldn’t even have time to kiss that football player she liked goodbye. The ladder would be wrenched out from right under her, and she’d hurtle down back into the masses and would no longer be perfect Janet.

 

I saw Janet’s nails dig into her palms under the table. She went to bed early that night, but our new house had thin walls, and I could hear the whisper of the pom poms as they cut through the air, over and over again.

 

But the next week, she came home from school, having traded her pom poms for a deck of cards.

 

“They’re vintage,” she told Mom when she huffed in disapproval at her eldest shuffling yellowing cards over the table,“like all those plates you like so much.”

 

I found out from my friend Bethany, whose brother was dating one of Janet’s cheerleader friends, that Janet was now playing poker at lunch and making a killing. When I came home from school, I’d find cards dancing as she made them vanish with a flick of her fingers and reappear in her other hand.

 

Perfect arcs, still, and I envied her ability to make things flow just right. The diamonds soared through the air and landed in her other hand in a rapid burst of plastic-coated paper slapping each other, as if pulled by some invisible string. I wished that I could do that.

 

She offered to teach me how to shuffle one Friday afternoon before her weekly piano lesson, but I was going to the movies with Andrew. He had shyly asked me out on Wednesday, during those last few precious moments of lunch. I left her offer untouched and instead asked can you lend me lip gloss.

 

She put down her cards, the queen of hearts on top, looking at me solemnly, and led me upstairs where she rummaged through the back of her closet and gave me four different tubes of lip gloss to choose from. She covered their labels and named them for me: “tastes like raspberries, will get you into trouble at school, makes you look kissable and the one mom doesn’t mind.” I grabbed “makes you look kissable” but nothing happened in the dark cinema except for a lot of crying scenes. That was my last date with Andrew.

 

Mom still thought that Janet was set on the trajectory towards Carnegie Hall.

 

When she asked me for a favor, I couldn’t say no. I wanted to be the magnanimous sibling who helped their crying sister. The one who would climb into my window at three in the morning, mascara running and a deck of cards, creased and stained, sticking out of the pocket of her ripped jeans. I wanted that moral superiority to dangle over her stupid French-braided head. She asked me for money, and I handed it to her wordlessly. All one hundred and twenty dollars of my babysitting money for the family next door who always wanted me to come over and be such a good influence on little Izzy. Janet’s hand stayed outstretched, as if she expected more, but the moment that I opened my mouth to tell her that the wad of tens and twenties was it, she yanked me into a hug.

 

She smelled like cigarette smoke and the girls’ locker room and cheap deodorant, so I held my breath until she let go of me and whispered in my ear. 

 

“You’re the best sister. Thank you so much, I swear I’ll pay you back. Please don’t tell Mom, thank you so much, good luck with your algebra test tomorrow.” 

 

She said that like a prayer. The mantra followed her to the window.

 

Downstairs the next morning, I was greeted by my mother and a police officer who tipped his hat at me politely but I did not see him—I only saw my mother’s red-rimmed eyes and raspberry nose and the papers in front of her. I did not see Janet anywhere near.

 

“Did you know anything about this?” Mom’s voice was switchblade soft, and I wasn’t fooled by her splotchy face anymore.

  

She jabbed a blood-red finger onto the top document, and I leaned in and saw a mugshot with my sister’s eyes wide and not entirely focused and looking so young—nothing like the piano player, three-point shooter, card trickster that dwelled in the pictures on the mantelpiece. 

 

“She asked us to contact you, miss, but as part of our policy we don’t contact minors. We called your mother when we picked her and some other teens up for illegal gambling. Turns out she was running quite a prolific business and was getting involved with some local gangs.” 

 

Something heavy and sticky began bubbling up in my stomach, and for a second, I thought it might be the “makes you look kissable” lip gloss, but I knew it wasn’t that when I turned to my mother and said “piano player fingers, huh.”

 

Yong-Yu is a Taiwanese teenager who has lived in Malaysia for all her life. Her current favorite self-descriptive adjective is “culturally-confused.” She had been previously published in The Heritage Review and the bitter fruit review. In her spare time, she can be found binging Doctor Who, playing the flute, or lazing around the house.

Art by: Tao Tiva

Welcome to the Galapagos!

In her piece, Avalon Felice Lee takes you through a funky and absurd adventure into the Galapagos that contains strange bird-like characters who fight in a wacky wilderness.

Welcome to the Galapagos!

‘Tis the season of freshly cracked eggs and budding miconias, so spring forward and send your fledglings here for the finest education in the ecosystem. We teach the finches of tomorrow everything from how to nibble around the nectarine pit to how to tell a radish from rhubarb. Best be sure that your chicks will realize their true wingspan.

Hullo, Hunter.

Oh!
Is that for show and tell?

Your special toy must fit in a lunchbox—

bang

 

Survival of the Fittest

Not a chirrup from Ms. Darwin. She has a bullet in her gizzard.
Babes, spread your wings! Downy puffs lick conifer-scented oxygen as the flock departs

from the nest, the survival instinct kicking in.
The farthest only makes it a couple yards before his spiderweb bones snap under the

currents. The rest scatter, frisking from branch to twig to twig to branch, frantic to bilk the hunter. Flying—Ms. Darwin hadn’t covered this in class. Just yesterday they were still practicing tail feather coordination.

Quick, find a hollow gnarl. (Cabinets, cupboards.)

 

The birdbrains disappear into clusters of leaves. (Quilts, desks.) To be fair, what choice do they have?

Trees only have so many knots.

 

Jay

The art cabinet is Jay’s domain. The waxy scent of crayons soothes his nerves as he holds his breath like a vendetta, trying to erase the image of Ms. Darwin on the nylon carpet, unmoving, unblinking.

Last September, she had elected him the Art Materials Official. Every day Jay follows through with his duty, scrubbing off leftover acrylic, testing the ink intensity of the markers. The good-for-nothings are tossed out. And of course, the most important task of all: sharpening each of the crayons in the twenty-four packs.

Cerulean—his favorite. He uses it to color everything.

One day, Jay will be a famous artist! World famous! His aunt might finally look up from her blue Skittles. Imagine, a museum gallery with his drawings of a

                                                     cerulean giraffe

      cerulean astronaut                                                                 cerulean harp
                                                       cerulean tractor

cerulean—

The cabinet hinge whines.

bang

 

Efron

His pterodactyl print shirt camouflages with the cornucopia of backpacks. Smart boy. The hunter’s graphite eyes slip right over him.

He knows his shapes. A square is most certainly not a trapezoid. He knows a fish from a mammal. A shark and a bottlenose, respectively. He even knows a sliver of subtraction, how to borrow the one, et cetera.

Efron knows everything about death. Every Sunday, the deacon rambles and ambles about the same old as his unhemmed robes scrape the tiles, punishing the marble for its mere existence.

For all his efforts, daily Psalms recitations won’t buy his ticket to heaven. Apparently, certain types already have designated fire-pits. Still. There is a boy whose favorite crayon is cerulean…

Red paint dribbles from the art cabinet, the drip-drops distinct from the outside April shower.

Efron knows everything about death. The classroom is a collage; thumb through the pages yourself. It reeks of iron and is as silent as divine intervention.

After his expiration date, he has eternity to spend being barbecued in his private fire-pit. Why rush it?

So, while the hunter surveys his yield, checking every nook and cranny for strays, Efron abandons his place, soaring at godspeed.

Past the doorframe.

 

Hunter

Now, Hunter has a keen ear for Eminem

Bartók
and squeaky sneakers.

 

Efron

A microcosm of comatose autos, mostly Fords and Toyotas. Chipped lacquer flashes in silver daylight, urging him to hurry through buttery puddles though his socks may dampen. The hunter is on the go.

There! Up ahead, near the patchwork of wire, a familiar stegosaurus in all its yellow glory. Twice a day it tromps to his cul-de-sac. If he asks nicely, would the stego offer refuge?

The east wind carries him over, hurrying him behind the stego’s hulking body. Shivering in cloud tears, he prays.

 

Hunter

Behind a school bus tire, rubber soles play

peek-a-boo.

 

Efron

Sirens grieve in red and blue. Matchbox cruisers pioneer down the trail at more than twenty-five miles an hour. Answered prayers? Efron’s spirits lift.

The hunter slinks around the corner, tool in hand, the kind reserved for lions and tigers and bears. And kindergarteners, evidently.

Efron falls back. Wet concrete scrapes his palms as his heart wracks his ribcage.
Muzzle, meet forehead.
Instead of praying, he says, “Please don’t,” to a different kind of deity. Blasphemy? Who

cares. Efron simply doesn’t want to die.
A long pause. “One good reason, kid,” he says, baritone stifled by his knit mask. His

trigger finger slackens.
“I’ll go to hell,” he tells him in a beat. “Deacon Eric said I’ll go to hell where I’ll rot in

fire-pits because I’m unclean and I still need to get rid of—”

bang
bang
bang

 

Natural Selection

The hunter drops his toy and crumples, a soggy paper doll. Efron emerges, the lone finch.
Evolutionists coin this “natural selection”.

 

Welcome Back to the Galapagos!

 

Once again, ‘tis the season of freshly cracked eggs and budding miconias, and parent finches are still springing forward to send their babes here to realize their true wingspan. Fledglings learn how to nibble around the nectarine pit; how to tell a radish from rhubarb.

But recess is spent in code-red lockdowns. They realize their true wingspan is, in fact, as flight-effective as cotton wads. They learn to arm themselves with safety scissors; how to blitz hunters with Dr. Seuss hardcovers.

Certainly, a fair fight against an AK-47.

Quick, scribble letters to Mother Finch and Father Finch. Apologies for bad behavior. Farewells, snuggles and pecks, miss you’s and love you’s. Binder paper decorated with tear stains, signed in rickety letters.

One hundred and eight written today. Thirty-one last words.

Hatchlings, finches, welcome to the Galapagos! Hunters are out of hibernation, so beware of rifles and razor mesh. In each nest, scout for the best hiding spot and stay near it at all times, just in case. Efron, dearest finchling, one year down, twelve to go.

Welcome to the Galapagos!

 

Avalon Felice Lee is an Asian-American sixteen-year-old sophomore at Notre Dame San Jose High School. She has been writing prose since the age of eleven, thanks to her author-mentor-mother. When not writing, she’s probably practicing cello, assaulting the ears of nearby victims. When she grows up, she wants to be an author. And a millionaire.

Art by Yiting Ruan

The Lady Downstairs

In her piece, “The Lady Downstairs”, Kanchan Naik unfolds the haunted side of family heritage in a busy city life full of twist’s, turns, and death.

 

Mr. Anand claimed that if the world grew quiet for even a single moment, we would hear the footsteps of the Great Mother. Ira, he called her. Ira Devi. But my thick New Yorker tongue, in all its nine years of inelegance, could never bring out the softened trill in ‘Ira’. We would try for hours to rediscover the sideways lilt and the softened vowels of his accent. But the voice that came so naturally to him made my warbling American throat a clothed imposter. So it was Mr. Anand, while trying desperately to keep a straight face, who suggested I call her The Lady Downstairs.

We spent those evenings on the stairwell that lead to the front door of our apartment complex, where redbrick met with the sun-stained streets of Jericho. My head rested against the seventh stair with my feet swinging off the ninth. There was some clarity in staring at a city that whistled by us, that arrogantly wrapped itself within the fiction of consciousness. But Mr. Anand and I knew that the streets, with all their oil stains and car crashes and racket, were sound asleep.

Listen,​ he said. And we would, until the clatter of a dangling world blurred into a dull roar. He would close his eyes, and I would too. For a second, I could feel every bone in my body, every eyelash pulsing with the ghost of some forgotten instinct. The winds ceased to dance. The sky would exhale. When I opened my eyes, I would murmur, ​someone was here. ​Mr. Anand smiled back.​ Yes, someone was here. The Lady Downstairs. A​n the sun would dissolve, as though on cue, behind the diner two blocks away.

It was with Mr. Anand that I tasted my first cup of real chai. My mother and father, who opted for the convenience of QuikTea, never bothered with spices and cane sugar. Mr. Anand, however, ground his own garam masala from fennel and bay leaves. After one taste, I knew that my tongue would never forgive the flavorless, sugary water that my parents preferred. Instant tea, like my Indian accent, was shakily unsure of what it was supposed to be. But a steaming cup of chai was so confident in its existence that the liquid sung as it gurgled down my throat. ​I make chai from the earth. From what she gives us, M​r. Anand explained. ​From The Lady Downstairs?

From The Lady Downstairs.

My parents treated the greying Indian man one apartment across with a cloaked unease. They were grateful for the hours we spent together before one of them came home from work. But the crimson toran hanging on Mr. Anand’s door was a silent red flag between them. My parents were ‘wallflower’ Indians who lost their accents to keep their jobs. Delhi was a photograph in my father’s wallet, a pair of earrings on my mother’s nightstand. They forced smiles during the offhand conversation, but I could see my mother’s eyes harden when Mr. Anand called her Parvati instead of some Anglicized distortion.

Autumn came. And as those summer evenings descended into the horizon, they took two towers with them. I remember the frantic phone calls, the wail of sirens crackling against our screen door. My mother sunk lifelessly into the sofa as the television blared.

Parv, m​y father murmured.​ You need to eat something.​ But she didn’t. Her eyes were fixed on the bodies ablaze, on the screams coiling into television static. I remember those hours we spent, a porcelain family, almost able to touch a splintering country through the telechrome. Mr. Anand had once told me something, and it burned in my brain. ​We live in the Kalyug, the Dark Age. T​hose words prickled in the television volume, an echo of those wounded faces. I would never forget those men who crawled out out of melted cars, carrying bloodied bodies on their backs. They had those hunted eyes — eyes in silent agreement that yes, this is the Kalyug, the Dark Age.

Mr. Anand was shot three weeks later. My father swept me into his arms as though it was I who had borne the bullet. It happened outside the grocery he used to frequent, where he would buy cinnamon and fresh ginger and tell the cashier to keep the change. The nearby 7/11 owned by the Guptas was burned to the ground, and all I could hear was Mr. Anand, over and over, reminding me that this was a Dark Age. Those words grew colder every time until I found myself sitting on that stairwell, staring at a hollow street. Mr. Anand’s relatives were moving his furniture into a white U-Haul. For a moment, I desperately hoped they would forget the red toran swaying against his front door. It could live a fragile life of its own, suspended only by a fraying string. But when I blinked, the toran was gone.

She’s awake now, I​ whispered. The city was alive, and so was I — the two of us momentarily silenced. And for the first time, I felt the footsteps of Ira Devi against the blackened earth, louder and louder until they swallowed the sun. ​The Lady Downstairs?

The Lady Downstairs.

Kanchan Naik is a junior at The Quarry Lane School in Dublin and the Teen Poet Laureate for the City of Pleasanton. When she’s not doodling or writing poetry, she is most likely untangling her earphones or looking for something that happens to be — much like herself — lost.

visual art by Holly Shelton 

Barefoot

In her piece “Barefoot,” Kanchan Naik shares the sentimental experiences of she and her grandmother in India.

If India was a heart, pulsing and beating in my palm, then the National Highway 66 was a pounding capillary with traffic as steady as the flow of blood. Sixty metres of rugged ebony asphalt and mud-ridden intersections, the National Highway 66 guided everything, from taxi drivers with beetlejuice between their teeth to bickering couples across the western coast of India. The sun blazed like a copper coin in the limitless blue sky, beating down upon the well-worn stones of a tired road. Anyone, from the street children selling coconut water at the junctions to the farmers guiding oxen through the rice paddy fields could tell you where these roads could take you.

But few travel the old road that diverts from NH-66. Only a handful of those people would cross the bridge that connects to the monsoon-blessed Shambhavi River, its waters meandering into lazy, stagnant marshes. Hardly any would care to remember the name ‘Hejmadi’, the old village settled on Shambhavi’s northern banks.

But I remember. And my reason to remember has charcoal black eyes and silvery hair tied tightly in a knot at the back of her neck. Paper-thin wrinkles line the edges of her cheeks, crimping into little folds every time she laughs. The world calls her Radha. I call her Maomma, my grandmother. And for years, I was content with knowing her solely as the latter, while falling asleep in her arms as she sang ​Ranganayaka in her low, powdery voice. It was a holy song meant to awaken God from his heavy slumber. So, as God’s eyes opened to my grandmother’s words, mine slowly and drowsily closed.

As I grew older, Radha’s presence became more than a shadow, details that I had overlooked as a child now sharpening into focus. I pored over photographs that smelled lightly of mildew, struggling to weave her tale. ​Yet the more I learned, the more I realized that there was a whole other side to her.

Before Radha, there was Meera.

And she was a flurry of bare feet thudding against the grasses of rice paddy fields, the peal of her anklets following her like a shadow. It was the age of black and white ​— of an India that was free, but in bloodied pieces. Of post-Partition pressure tearing apart the Indian soil, but Hejmadi wrapped in its own cocoon, unperturbed.

It was amid this sea of contrasts that Meera grew up, a nine-year-old with a charcoal dot beneath her ear to ward off the evil eye. Seven children in all, the Shenoy family was virtually a village of its own, scurrying about the mud-walled courtyard in the midst of their boisterous games. Meera’s mother watched and smiled. Meera only had a few faint memories of her mother — a gentle caress, tender hands weaving her hair into braids, a chime of laughter. She would count the callouses on her mother’s palm as they walked hand in hand through their coconut groves. Bare feet muffled against the silence of the fertile earth, the ghosts of their footsteps erased by the wind. It was during the handful of years with her mother that Meera learned to befriend the stubborn coconut. How to burst it open against the ground with a single crack. How to scrape the last bits of flesh off its shell.

What Meera didn’t know is that some coconuts bear tiny, fine cracks beneath the surface. They shrivel slowly from the inside, the white flesh dissolving beneath the sun. She would soon see these thin, jagged cracks in her mother’s waning health. For months, her mother battled fevers and a hacking cough. But still, she roamed the leafy groves, dismissing the signs of her growing illness with the wave of her hand. ​Little did ​Meera know that her mother would never live to see another coconut season, never guide her through the dense arms of palm trees again.

The courtyard was silent as her mother lay on her charpoy. Those few fleeting hours before she died, she swallowed her finals sips of coconut water, the glass trembling in her hand. Soft sobs filled the night as Meera sang ​Ranganayaka for her mother. God arose from the distant horizon, welcoming an old friend.

~~~

Life without her mother was wounded and fragmented. Meera learned to tie her own braids, her stubby fingers fumbling with the ribbons. She ground coarse masala powder against a stone and swept debris off the courtyard floors with a broom. She carved the ground beyond her house with white rangoli and lit sticks of incense beneath the altars of the household gods. Ashy plumes of smoke clouded her vision. The temple was no different from what she had become, clouded by the obscurity of what was no longer there. In all her teenage years, Meera was a child struggling to fit in her mother’s skin. She rebelled, thrashing against the void she was expected to fill. In local paan stalls, she secretly smoked beedi cigarettes, the feeling of tobacco mixed with temburni leaves burning in her throat. Meera’s aunt speared her left nostril with a pointed stick, her eyes screwed shut through the agony. When the pain subsided, she threaded a glimmering crescent of a stud through the hole.

“You are a woman now, ” she said, beaming.

But at night, when the coconut trees whistled in the wind and her father sang Ranganayaka t​ o the sky, Meera was still a little girl wrapped in her mother’s shadow.

The years passed by slowly. Old scars learned to heal with the gentle fingers of time. The village was the same, with the medleys of grey-bellied cuckoos reverberating across the fields. It was Meera who had changed, with her hair longer and threaded into spiraling braids, her features the very image of her mother’s. The knee-length skirts and blouses were now replaced with half-sarees, the ends of the cotton fabric tucked into her ​kamarbandh​. Her nose ring was larger than the last, but gone was the stinging pain that had come with it. Gone was the anguish that marked her early childhood, the vision of her mother now blending like watercolors into the past.

Meera still roamed barefoot, the soles of her feet resilient against the Indian soil. But the ground where she had learned to walk had changed. The seamless rice-paddy acres, so enormous they could have swallowed her, were now but a faint horizon through the window. With time had come the overbearing verdicts of her conservative older brothers, imprisoning her within the confines of four walls. “A woman’s place is in her home”, they repeated, their words twisting into firm metal bars. But the stern gaze of her brothers only made Meera love the open air with reckless abandon. Heartfelt but headstrong, she refused to watch life slip between her fingers. Bare feet tiptoed across the courtyard as she slithered into the night, the village fair awaiting her. Her eyes grew wide as she watched larger-than-life actors prance across the stage, the bells of their costumes jangling in the distance. It was those nights when Meera tasted the stolen fruits of freedom.

As she grew older, her father and brothers descended into a whirlwind of preparation for her marriage. Meera’s father counted the acres and examined the cows of local landowners, his love demanding nothing but the best for his daughter. Marriage was a circle, a rhythm of brides leaving their homes to make new ones. The day a woman adorned her forehead with the vermilion dot of good fortune, she became a strand of an age-old fabric much larger than she was. But in between the threads of red and gold tradition, Meera saw the same pattern of captivity, the same narrow walls of domestic drudgery. She had no interest in walking in the footsteps of her mother and the mothers before her. Her brothers pleaded with her. “Why must you argue? Are you not happy?”

“Of course I am happy. I just want more.”

But what ​did s​he want? Frankly, Meera didn’t know what she wanted. All she knew was that sometimes when the village Ferris wheel ground into motion, her fingers grasping at the breeze, Meera felt irrationally but utterly complete. Bare feet fluttered against the sky as Meera’s Ferris wheel cart swung gently at the top. Her gaggle of friends waved to their companions below, but Meera looked nowhere but upward.

She wanted to spend the rest of her life reaching for the sky.

Meera was sprawled on the charpoy on the terrace, dreaming of the Ferris wheel when the stranger from Bombay arrived. Her sister grabbed her arm, whispering excitedly.

“Meera! There are visitors at the door! They are bringing a ​boy.​”

Meera rolled her eyes. “​Another ​suitor? The matchmaker had just brought in a boy two days ago.”

Her sister giggled. “This boy isn’t the same as the rest!​” She leaned closer, her smile only growing wider.“ He’s​ different. Y​ou know, these other boys come swaddled in their​ dhotis, looking like baby ducks crossing the pond. But not this one! He is wearing crisply ironed brown pants. ​”​

Meera’s eyes widened. “When will I get to see him?”

“No, you cannot see him. What would people think?”

“How can I marry him without seeing him? What if he’s short or plump or…” Meera struggled to find words, “…or ​ugly?”​

She darted across the courtyard, leaning against the walls in a desperate attempt to catch broken pieces of conversation. There were muffled words, the voices of her brothers too faint for her to discern. As the discussion continued, Meera stared at the chicken-wire window etched into the wall a few feet above her. Her eyes hardened into resolve, as she knotted the loose end of her half-sari to her waist.

Bare feet mounted the tiles that lined the courtyard walls. Her sister stared at Meera’s antics in silent horror, entirely prepared to flee in the case that she was caught.

When Meera stared through the spaces between the wire mesh of the window, she saw nothing at first. The faces of her family members were hidden behind a billowing cloth hung to dry. She cursed her fate under her breath, clutching the edge of the window sill for support. Then something flashed before her eyes, and she gasped.

Shoes.

Shoes were not for Hejmadi’s farmers or businessmen. They belonged to those who walked down bustling roads carved by slabs of concrete. The shiny black Indian loafers meant nothing to brothers who accounted for land and the aunts who prized the family name. But for Meera, shoes were the symbol of a world she had never seen, of the things that she never had. Every scuff mark brought a piece of the city’s crumbling sidewalks, every stain of shoe polish was the mark of city monsoons. No one in Hejmadi cared for those shoes because they had no interest in its whereabouts. For the earthen village soil, living barefoot was enough.

But not enough for Meera.

“Of course he’s ​different!​” Meera whispered to herself, recalling her sister’s words. “He’s from the ​city.”

In the midst of her joy, she lost her balance and fell to the ground with a thud. Bruised bare feet on the ground again, giddy and quivering. Her sister clucked like a mother hen, scolding her for being so foolish. But still, she smiled in a daze of some sorts, remembering nothing but the shoes. It was settled. Meera was to be wed.

~~~
Marriage in India was not simply the exchange of rings in front of a fire. It was a moment of change, when women left the final pieces of adolescence in their childhood homes. Meera stared at herself in the mirror, her hair coiled into a bun and slicked with coconut oil. Thin strokes of kajal lined her eyes. There was once a time when Meera wanted nothing more than to be a woman, to fit into her mother’s cotton sarees and carry her borrowed confidence. Yet as the moment had finally arrived, she wrestled with the fear that simmered beneath the surface. Meera remembered the moment before she had broken her first coconut. Gingerly, she had looked up at her mother asking,

“I don’t know if I can do it, am I ready?”

Her mother smiled. “You always were.”

The coconut cracked open that day, its fruit for the taking. Wordlessly, Meera draped the loose end of her saree over her shoulder and walked into the light.

They say when God chooses to awaken on Earth as a mortal again, his incarnation is given a new name. Meera had grown up chanting these names in the household temple, singing, “Hare Rama! Hare Krishna!” And now, wrapped in red and gold, she was gifted her own name. When women were married in Meera’s village, they were given their new identities, the shells of their previous lives unraveling into the​ mandap s​moke. As the vermillion dot of good fortune was painted on her forehead, she was christened Radha — the namesake of God’s beloved. It was a new name, one that did not conceal Meera but rather embraced her. That night, it was Radha and her husband, Govind, who left the village, promising to write letters home. Bare feet welcomed the new earth below it, regardless of what lay ahead.

~~~
It took another thirty years before the National Highway 66 was built by the Indian Government. Carefully, the changing times molded pieces of Southern Karnataka, constructing buildings where there were grasslands, factories where there were terra-cotta homes. But the banks of the Shambhavi River are the same. The golden stretch of land resists not the water, but accepts its tranquil ripples and currents. Coconut trees reach towards the sunlight, its fronds whispering in a language of its own. I stare at Maomma. Her nose ring glints beneath the sunlight and I am reminded of both her pain and her pride. Time has been both kind and cruel to her, but my grandmother is at peace with the waves that have molded her.

I begin making my way down the waterside, but she halts.

“You are forgetting something,” she tells me, her eyes twinkling.

“What?”

Silently, Maomma slips out of her sandals, beckoning for me to do the same. We cross the patchwork of sand and silt, the two of us barefoot and laughing. My feet sink into new soil. Grains of sand coil between my toes and suddenly the generations between us disappear. Gone are highways that divide us, the languages that separate us. With every growing step our footprints grow closer and closer, until the horizon melts into the water below and no longer can we tell them apart.

Kanchan Naik is a junior at The Quarry Lane School in Dublin and the Teen Poet Laureate for the City of Pleasanton. When she’s not doodling or writing poetry, she is most likely untangling her earphones or looking for something that happens to be — much like herself — lost.

Visual Art by Nahyun Sung 

Perfect Case of OCD

The “Perfect Case of OCD” is based on the personal troubles Lily Oldershaw faced while growing up with Obsessive-compulsive disorder.

For a while, OCD wasn’t just a disease, it was my disease. No one else was allowed to claim it, because if other people suffered like I did, It was basically like I never suffered at all. Quite a selfish thought, really, but OCD is a very self-absorbed disease, seeking all one’s available attention until there isn’t any left to give.

In fourth grade, I had to whisper the names of every student in my class (in alphabetical order) to no audience other than my humidifier and the radiator (which stopped and started in reluctant applause at my incredible memory). If I failed to recall a classmate, I couldn’t fall asleep. It simply wasn’t feasible. I would shut my eyes and listen to the heavy lull of the radiator, but my fists would clench and the fallow colors creeping through the cracks between my curtains, the hapless four A.M. light, would settle atop my eyelids. But sleep would not come.

In sixth grade, I chewed each bite thirty times in each cheek, for I thoroughly believed, even one bite short of my perfect number, I might fail to digest the meal entirely. It would settle in my stomach like a rock and plop itself there, an eternal resident of my digestive system. I knew it was a foolish thought, and I kept it to myself. But I believed it nonetheless.

In eighth grade, I cried because I knew something wasn’t right. Nothing was ever right. But I was never sure what. Breath taut, like a shrinking elastic. Four in, seven out. Harsh beams of light filtered through my sterile shades; the four strips of white that shone on the sliver of the floor between the bed and the wall were the same every day. Four was a bad number, so I avoided them. One foot on the cold hardwood, another, until they were side by side, toe to toe. Three sips of water. Gulp, gulp, gulp. Cup back down. Center it, good. Every morning was the same, and I liked it this way.

It was also in eighth grade that I developed my x-ray vision. It was a Tuesday when Max Jacobs threw up in the middle of first period. Mrs. Peterson was explaining the importance of special right triangles and he started coughing. He didn’t even bother aiming for the sink or a trash can, it blanketed his desk like a cocoon, spilling over into his open backpack.

“Oh, dear,” began Mrs. Peterson, but I didn’t stay to listen to the remainder of her sentence. I pulled on my sweatshirt and hurdled over an empty chair to reach the door before any of his germs spread to my open lips. I saw things nobody else could, the bacteria floating through the air, crawling along the carpet, clinging to the bottoms of my shoes, sinking into the raw skin on my palms. I despised the nurse’s office. It was the most germ-ridden room in the entire school. They were everywhere in there: in the bathroom where countless stomach ache cases had thrown up, on the armrests of the benches where the cold cases rested their sweatshirts after they’d coughed in their sleeve. I avoided this hell hole at all costs. But I didn’t know where else to go. I perched myself on the table as I hyperventilated. I had never breathed so fast before, but I didn’t have time to be impressed with this new skill, for the nurse was rubbing my back with her hand, the same hand that had rubbed hundreds of other backs that same very week. I tore away and shoved my hands in my pockets where they wouldn’t touch anything else, held my breath so I wouldn’t have to breathe the infested air. By the time I couldn’t hold my breath any longer, she was dialing the number on my emergency contact sheet. I breathed into the hood of my sweatshirt and waited.

When I got home, I stood under the bathroom’s judging light. I scrubbed the antibacterial soap into the bleeding canyons on the backs of my hands, cracked from a combination of over washing and the biting winter air. I used only the hot water until the skin beneath my fingernails turned purple like the bath toy my mom used to give me that changed color in the pink bubble bath steam. I clenched the skin of my cheeks in my molars until my eyes watered and counted to one hundred. A solid number. A safe number.

“What are you doing?” My dad flicked off the faucet. I was just relieved that I didn’t have to touch it. Hands suspended in the air, water dripping onto my socks, I whispered, “Washing my hands.”

Suddenly, I found myself in a cold office. All the laminated degrees, they meant nothing to me, but they must have meant something to my parents, for it made them trust this man with my care for hours at a time, even though they hardly knew him. I was told his name was Dr. Clump, and that was all I really knew about him, besides the fact that he graduated with a PHD from Brown. It haunted me that he knew so much about me, yet I knew so little about him, and I was determined to find out more. All I knew was what I could see, and I never liked that, because there were always things lurking beneath the surface. I knew he leaned back in his chair as he talked, and his stomach protruded over his thick black belt, landing on top of his desk. I knew a diet coke left a wet ring on top of a textbook sized, “A Comprehensive Guide to Adolescent OCD” Perhaps he was going on a diet, a rather unsuccessful one, I presumed. I knew he closed his eyes while he talked, inspiring me to coin the nickname later when I described the session to my parents: Closed-eyed Clump. His desk lacked any photographs of his wife, kids, even a dog. There were only generic framed pictures that it was clear he didn’t take, a fall leaf, a droplet of water on a brick, they seemed meaningless, and they were hung crooked on his wall. I wondered if he had done it like that on purpose, because surely no grown man could manage to accidentally center a photo that poorly.

I sought solace in the small octagonal window behind him, the sky blue, grey, black, orange, depending on the time of day I was dragged to this stifling room, always cold in the summer and warm in the winter. I loved the drive home from his office, from the city, buildings stacked neatly side by side, precisely planted shrubbery, because I knew I didn’t have to stare past his ugly glasses into curious, prying eyes for at least another week. But I loathed the ride there, the car-seat fabric stretching between my white knuckles, rolling the window up and down because I couldn’t get it just right.

During one of our earlier sessions, I noticed his computer had adopted a new screensaver: polar bears. It changed about every thirty seconds or so, and each depiction of the animal featured a new pose, one leaning against a rock, one sitting cross-legged, one standing on its heels begging for fish, one resting on its back, its stomach stretching out over its legs. Then and there, I decided my shrink quite resembled this arctic species, but his most accurate likeness was certainly the last image on the slideshow.

“Do you know why I chose the polar bears?”

I shook my head.

“Now that I brought it up, and you’re staring at them, you can’t stop thinking about them, can you?”

I shook my head again. This was our usual routine. He would say something he thought to be profound or groundbreaking and smile to himself at his own genius while I either nodded or shook my head, depending on what I deemed appropriate.

“It’s like OCD. As much as you try to stop yourself from thinking about your compulsions, they will never go away. You have to stop trying to make them go away, and they will.” This seemed extremely counterproductive. Wasn’t his entire job to cure me? Not to make up reasons why I wasn’t yet cured. I realized how unfair this entire thing was. Why me? Dr. Clump told me I had the perfect case of OCD, but he also said nothing was perfect. He was full of contradictions. It comforted me, knowing that something about me was perfect, just right: my OCD. That meant there were other people like me, probably a lot. And as I watched the sinking orange beyond the car windshield, past the puzzle of buildings, while my dad whistled his usual backing out of a therapist’s driveway tune, I thought about this idea. I thought about it quite often. Nothing is perfect. What exactly did that mean? I had heard things described as perfect before, so how was it possible that perfection didn’t exist? It was August when I realized he was right. During one of our dimmer, lamp-lit sessions over the winter, he told me to go kayaking. I was watching sleet blanket a telephone wire through the octagon as he described the ripples in the water that stem from the rivulets dripping off the paddle. How they appear unflawed at first glance, the rings all equal lengths from each other, separating slowly until they sink into the black depths, continuing far into the distance.

“But,” he had said, “even one of the most seemingly perfect sights in nature is still not entirely perfect. A boat could drive by, disrupting the pattern. And this is essentially what OCD is. Something disrupts the pattern and it upsets us.” This sounded like something a bearded man with horn-rimmed glasses framed by Brown degrees would say, but it was also one of the moments when I was most fond of my therapist. It was a very therapist thing to say, and I liked that. I liked that it was expected, but I still wasn’t sure how that piece of advice could fix me. Come summer, though, I did as he told me. As soon as I stepped into the boat, I immediately became ill-at-ease. It tilted with the shifting wake, I never liked being off balance. Water soaked through my shorts, prickling the skin on my thighs. My breathing began to tighten again. 7,4,7,4. I watched the sky warm to a pale red reflecting in the water on the ripples. It’s true. They aren’t perfect, but they’re still beautiful. Exposure therapy, a term Clump liked to throw around a lot; I knew it was important for me to get better, but I kept putting it off. Getting better, it seemed hard, far away, the future you imagine on the hopeful edge of sleep, but in the back of your mind know will never find its way into reality. I dipped my fingers into the cool pink water, sweet on my chipped fingernails. I let them stay there for a solid amount of time. I didn’t count, just waited for my fingers to grow numb as I stared at my rosy reflection in the lake water. I tried to remember the second part of what Clump had said. As he was finishing his sentiment, I remembered, I was watching a cardinal flick ice from the telephone wire,

“Even if something disrupts the pattern, don’t let it upset you. Nothing’s perfect, and that’s okay.”

Lily Oldershaw is a sophomore in high school who enjoys writing based both on her own experiences and creating worlds from her imagination. She hopes readers of her work will think about the world differently and take a piece of it with them into their everyday life. When she isn’t writing, Lily can often be found doing yoga, watching interviews on Youtube of interesting people, and trying to shorten the pile of “To Be Read” books on her desk.
Visual Art by Anastasia James 

The Symbolism behind Driving into an Underpass on the Garden State Parkway

In her piece, “The Symbolism behind Driving into an Underpass on the Garden State Parkway”, Zoha Arif beautifully captures an eccentric character’s relationship to love and nature.

One time, while driving home from a Tuesday grocery trip at the Little India produce market, you wiped the last fragment of boiled spaghetti away from your lips with a Chipotle napkin and said that only things that bluntly resemble the form of humans can have symbolism. Take the trees, you said, and see how their branches jut out like frozen twizzlers from the lean figure-eight waist — it all looks distinctly like the silhouette of a human body. This is why there are so many poems littered with metaphors about trees. And look ahead at the chipped brick underpass, you said, there is no symbolism in this thing, no blunt resemblance to humankind, just a loaf of carved brick designed to spare our Chevy truck from the humming Jersey rain for a few seconds. Pay no heed to the underpass, pay heed to the trees, you said. 

Now I don’t understand what this Garden State underpass has done to you to be named the most un-symbolic thing on the planet, but, then again, I don’t get a lot of things. For example, how did we two people, one a believer and the other an atheist, find ourselves together in the midst of a wedding. We announced our commitment to each other somewhere in the local mango fields, property of a fruit farmer who was not invited to our ceremony. I did not fancy stealing another man’s oxygen and trespassing like this, but you said that it did no harm, and so we exchanged rings on another man’s property unbeknownst to that man. 

The mangoes of the tree we stood under decorated the tufts of leaves like hairpins and your soft fingers did not hesitate to plunder a fruit from this tree for your lips to bite into, water syrup forming rivers through the lace of your gentle fingers like poetry. I was stunned when you did this. The fruit, mango, was nothing more than a complicated collection of particles to you, but I saw clearly that it was a child of the tree and the property of a man we both didn’t know. In the taxi your brother paid for, I pressed you for a reason as to why plundering the forbidden fruit was the arch for sharing my life with you and you said that it was just a mango, that it didn’t matter, that we shouldn’t fight on our wedding day. 

But our first night together, we fought anyway, this time with pieces of hips and elbows for the first right to the bathroom sink and, in the end, we had to share, like children. In between toothbrushes and shaving cream, with mouth foaming with listerine, dental floss, and toothpaste, I turned to you and said that I would love to be a liquefied mango, or any fruit for that matter, because it would be nice to be able to just disappear down the sink drain sometimes. Except, the part about being a liquefied mango is important because it would be quite horrid to flow down the drain like regular bathroom water. And you spat out a puddle of Colgate toothpaste into the sink and told me that you didn’t understand how mangos could possibly matter. I must have looked crazed to you, defending an eaten mango and then announcing that I want to be a liquified mango. But I didn’t want to tire you with my theory about the universe so what I said, instead, is that I guess what I mean is that I want an overripe mango for breakfast. 

Then dawned the days when you used to bike to Chinatown every morning, through dim sum palaces and dumpling dens, to buy a pound of fresh mangos for me, wearing nothing but husky trousers and that oversized gray Santa Cruz hoodie you once left on the couch and missed a flight to retrieve. And even though you never bothered to fix that brake lever, even New York City traffic didn’t keep you from your bike. Thinking of you one day as you had gone, I came to the conclusion that your Santa Cruz hoodie and your bike spend more time together than your lungs do with air. I wondered what a love letter from your Santa Cruz hoodie to your bicycle would sound like, maybe something like this: 

 

     Dear Bob the bicycle, 

I fell in love with the perfect curves of your tires that carry your full lust. I can fit into any space you allow me to. I wish for our dust to dance together like charcoal at the end of each day, when you’ve tired yourself and return from the dirt and grime of the winding streets.

Love, 

Your Santa Cruz hoodie 

 

I thought the love letter was quite clever, but when I gave it to you, you said that I have this unsettling tendency to pay attention to things that don’t matter, like bicycles, sweatshirts, and pigeons. Stealing a mango from a plastic grocery bag, you said that the rooster windbreaker with a missing “W” and the Chinese minimalists shopping for vegan tofu in China Town don’t matter in the grand scheme of life and the universe. So the next morning, I really tried to not think of the symbolism behind your tongue pushing water through the tube of your throat after 59 push-ups in the foyer, or the meaning behind a person who cuts an apple pie with the knife tilted up at 90, instead of a flat 180 degrees angle, or the symbolism behind the strange way in which you eat spaghetti and meatballs because you, My Lord, are the only living being who can get drunk off of dipping spaghetti, like nachos, into a tomato sauce with eggplant and zucchini. Now the truth of the matter is that I tried to pay no heed to the underlying symbolism of things for about two days, before rolling over and accepting defeat and the fact that cheesecake somehow represents the birth of a child. (A cheesecake is heavy and burdensome on the stomach, buttery, satisfying like the feeling one has after birthing a newborn, but touch the crust, and it crumbles to reveal a world of sin.) 

But you never got how these things could possibly matter because you never cared about the mango from the tree that did not belong to you, or the rooster windbreaker with the missing “W,” or the Chinese minimalists. You don’t remember the three people who always stood leaning on the tar hill cascading around the price pole for diesel in that gas station that bordered our flat. You don’t remember what the moon looked like, crescent or full, that night we built a cardboard airplane out of the cereal boxes in our pantry. That night, I told you that the reason our marriage collapsed was because of the mango and you laughed and asked again how mangos could possibly matter. The truth is that if you had cared about the mango, then the walls of the world would have leaned closer to you, given pieces of itself to you, and held you like honey with the gentlest of arms and lips. 

But the world and its things obviously never mattered to My Lord, you, who never hesitated to plunder and pluck the forbidden fruit and drink the soul of the mango leaves that were summoned to protect you and I, the paired pigeons, from the rest of the world. The people vomited sins and you spat back in the name of the holy Scripture. I am bitter. I wish that the fruit farmer had awoken our marriage night and thrown us both, like Adam and his beloved Eve, with the complementary threats and curses, to the cumbersome paved streets for drinking his property’s air. 

Now if we’re going back to the underpass, My Lord, there is lots of symbolism behind that Garden State underpass. The underpass broke the slaps of the rain as we drove underneath and somewhere in between, I grew up. That underpass is a symbol for our marriage, above all things. We drove Ferraris and Mercedes through each other as if we were somehow able to still stand even with an arching hole simmered through our pooling belly buttons. As we ate the fruits and beets, the things of this world fell from our throats through our bellies and out, though the difference is that I tasted it and you shoved it down your throat. You are like the underpass. You don’t stop to think about the cars and trunks that pass through you. You stand and assert your strength and courage by pushing something as gentle as rain away. The truth is that no one will care when that Garden State Parkway underpass is torn down one day and built into a better, stronger underpass, and the underpass knows that and maybe that’s why it’s so bitter. The underpass breathes, My Lord, just like the mangos breathe. The world beyond our bubble breathes, full inhales and exhales, drunk on the taste of air. It carries lessons and meaning and that’s why something as prosperous as mangos matter to the overarching scheme of the universe. 

 

Zoha Arif is a 16-year-old high school student studying computer science and programming at the Academy for Information Technology. She currently lives in New Jersey and enjoys spilling her strangest ideas into her works of fiction in her free time. She is also an editor for her school newspaper, Polyphony Lit, and E&GJ Press.

Visual arts by Ordy Chen

Green and Gold

Zoya Yan explores a fast paced narrative of her mother’s immigration, and sheds light upon what it’s like as a working immigrant in a largely populated city.

The story opens like this: a small suburban town, incredibly picturesque scenery, high expectations and even higher taxes. A teenage girl mingles with her friends in the hallway in the few sacred minutes before class begins. She looks like the average Chappaqua student. She sounds like the average Chappaqua student. She is one, isn’t she?

Mm, not so much. Before Chappaqua there was Eastchester with its white picket fences and lovely neighbors, where she and her parents piled into a rented single-bedroom, single-bathroom multi-family house for four years. Before Eastchester was the Bronx, a tall apartment with a view of the city skyline from the top floor and piles of rotting garbage from the bottom, where they stayed on the fourth floor for a few years until a drunk man was shot to death in the bar behind their building, after which her parents deemed it high time to move out. Before the Bronx was South Side Chicago, notoriously dangerous, not particularly pleasant either, especially not the grimy studio apartment (demolished a few years after they moved) that she can only remember from photo albums—but her first home nonetheless.

Before that before and even before that, if you really dig deep enough, you’d trace her life tree down through its suburban trunk, into its roots buried in sketchy South Side Chicago soil, through the Americas and across the horizon of the Atlantic.

The real story opens like this: a big city, street lamps blurring together under the ink of night. A 25-year-old newlywed waiting for the 8:15 PM bus calls this city her home, the only home she’s ever known.

She’s a planner and has been one for her whole life. She knows what she’s doing, what she’s capable of, what she wants in life. This city is her childhood and her youth. This life is comfort and familiarity and convention guaranteed to lead to stability.

Above the streetlamp, a sliver of moon hovers, just enough for its beams to skim the dots of drifting snow. The wind warns of an impending storm, tugging at the end of her ponytail and swirling the tip into a brush dipped in the gold of the streetlight glow, ready to paint her future. She looks around herself at the streets she could navigate with her eyes closed, the people she’s loved her entire life, the home she’s slowly built for herself.

Yet she knows there’s more. Her husband just left to study abroad in Illinois. She wants to support him there, and maybe she should. But how can she not think about all of the impossibilities? If she leaves her home, will she ever come back? What about her mother and father and brother? Will she make it in a country whose language she can barely speak, whose culture is entirely foreign, whose location is halfway across the planet? How does she survive financially, socially? Emotionally?

The moon brightens and brightens, fans out across the sky. Hours pass and the snow comes softer, everything rhyming with the word “go”. She thinks again of the impossibilities, and then of the possibilities. The promise of spring, glowing green and gold.

And then she rushes toward it with every ounce of energy she has.

She first works as a minimum-wage fast-food server at a Chinese place in downtown Chicago. She comes home every night nauseous from the sickening smell of oil soaked into her clothes and her hair, hands burned and blistered from the frying pan. For now, no other stores will take her with her poor English. So she studies hard.

Half a year later, a friend introduces her to the owner of a Japanese restaurant a few blocks east and she lands a job immediately. The restaurant is nice, somewhere she might have chosen to dine with a few friends on a Friday night if she were back home. She carries a secret snack stash of edamame beans in the left pocket of her apron and a pocket-size dictionary in the other—here, she relies much more on English. She gets tips now, and a few months later, she and her husband save up enough money to buy a bed frame to go with their mattress.

Because she adores children, her third job is babysitting. It pays well and she grows close to several of the families she works with. She has her very own baby to babysit a year later: her daughter, born on a chilly November morning as twilight surrenders to dawn. Shortly after, her husband receives a job offer in the Bronx, so they say goodbye to their friends (surprised by how sad they are to go), then on a foggy weekend begin their drive to New York City.

The sunsets from the balcony of their new apartment blanket the entire city until only tiny glittering lights are left dotting the skyline across the pier, countless specks of light, countless dreams and wishes. Their room is close to the ground floor so on windy days she gets a whiff of the garbage piles on the streets, but it’s nothing compared to the fast-food place she used to work at. Days bleed into weeks. She upgrades her pocket-size dictionary to a handheld electronic one that she buys from a Dollar Tree two blocks down.

She takes her daughter to the library near their apartment and explains to the librarians in what broken English she can muster that she’s going back to school soon, that she’ll be busy but can’t afford a nanny, asks if it’s okay to maybe drop her daughter off on the weekends. And so it’s between the beanbag chairs and lime green leather couches with the help of the librarians that her daughter learns how to sound English letters out, how to put them into mysterious bundles called words, how to read—and god, after she learns how to read, there’s really no stopping it. She sees the way her daughter falls in love with the adrenaline rush of a plot twist, the desperate itch of a cliffhanger, the way the page opens up doors to worlds and people that don’t even exist in this dimension of the universe.

Outside of those library walls, weeks blur into months, months into years. She’s back in school for her master’s degree: classes in the morning, interning in the afternoon, work in the evening, homework deep into the night as the sky blackens and blackens then pales again, hinting at dawn. A few hours of sleep. Repeat.

Seven hundred sunsets and sunrises later, she receives her diploma and a New York State teaching certificate and an indescribable feeling of warmth. Her daughter is growing up. When she lands a second interview for the first time, she buys herself a laptop to replace the battered electronic dictionary that she barely even needs anymore, switches out her flip-phone for the newest Nokia. They move out to the suburbs into a good school district that’s two hours away, but she takes up the offer at the Brooklyn elementary school anyway when they tell her she’s hired. It’s the first call she gets on her smartphone and she saves the number into her contacts with shaking hands.

Sure, she’d like to sleep past 5 AM and not commute for four hours a day, but she loves teaching more, and she loves her daughter the most. The sun blazes and blazes, pans out across the sky. The glow of spring is here.

My mother’s story is one in 37 million. Most of those voices remain unheard, memories buried, some families even separated at the border of two countries. In so many ways, my mom was lucky for being admitted legally, for being with her loved ones from the very beginning, for being able, after all these years, to pass on her story to her daughter, who will pass it on to the world. Because stories like her mother’s deserve to be told.

To make the choice she did meant that she viewed the world in a way I can’t even begin to wrap my mind around. She saw her life through a lens larger than herself, far larger, and I’m eternally grateful for that lens and for her unrelenting dedication, for not only her sacrifices, but also the mindset she instills in me by simply existing.

Her decisions have shaped me more than anything else has. I moved around a lot as a kid. It’s ingrained in who I am. From a young age, I learned to say hello and goodbye to people, because chances were I wouldn’t get another chance if I passed this one. I learned that home is where the heart is, that my family would always be my sun, unfailingly there for me every morning to keep me alive and warm. I learned that my friends are just asteroids orbiting in my life, just like I’m an asteroid in theirs. One day they’ll spin off into the abyss and new ones will come, and that’s okay. Everything I have in my tiny universe is temporary, but that’s kind of the beauty of it, isn’t it?

I’m writing this on my porch steps right now. It’s getting dark and I should probably head back before the mosquitoes get to me. But the moon is almost out in the same Chicago sky I was born under a decade and a half ago, and its faint outline greets me, a lullaby of dulcet silver against rich velvet on a hazy summer night. And if I just give myself a minute, if I’m still enough, I might hear the faint jingle of the New York City ice cream truck accompanied by an orchestra of sirens and honks. A breeze might bring a whiff of that citrus-flavored candy my mom used to buy for me on her way home from work, and I might just feel the tickle of grass in my small picket-fenced backyard in suburban Eastchester. Even with my eyes closed, I can imagine so vividly the roses that climb up my neighbor’s trellis here in Chappaqua, where the stars are brighter than city lights; I’ll picture the sunflowers and little dandelion seeds choreographed by the wind, and I’ll know, truly, that I owe everything to her.

On her twentieth wedding anniversary last week, she sat me down as the guests left, pulling out of our driveway one by one as the sun dipped behind the clouds. Tell my story, she said. Tell it to the world, dear. Write something for me.

I will, I promised her. But you’ve got to teach me your secrets first. How did you do it?

And she just laughed, took my hands in her calloused ones. I could see every wrinkle around the corners of her eyes. Sometimes, she said to me, it’s almost as though she can see herself standing at the airport alone, waiting at life’s crossroads, clutching onto a map of fate without any labels and racing down a one-way street that could very well be a dead-end—but racing anyway, because she knew that it would be worth it.

If not for herself, then for her husband. If not for herself, then for her parents and their parents, watching from above. If not for herself, then for her daughter’s life tree and its Chicago roots, for all of its branches that have yet to sprout, for the hope that its leaves, under the warmth of the spring sun, will bud green and gold.

 

16-year-old Zoya Yan is a junior attending Horace Greeley High School in Chappaqua, New York. As a first-generation American, she loves to explore her heritage through her writing. In her spare time, Zoya enjoys reading and napping with a preference for the latter.

Art by Noah Jones

Chance Block

Hewson Duffy showcases the atmosphere that a senior in high school experiences through his humorous yet suspenseful piece, “Chance Block.”

Rosey first heard about the fire after club announcements ended, as all the students filed out from the auditorium toward Chance Block. Some of the freshmen were talking about it, and flowing down the hallway with the vast tide of tired high-schoolers, she caught snippets of their conversation.

“In the cafeteria… someone said… fire—”

“UHNUH,” a senior boy grunted, drowning out the freshmen’s chatter.

Rosey put her fingers in her ears. She knew all too well after three weeks that grunts were contagious: first the other senior boys would grunt back, then all at once the hallways and classrooms would burst into a many-layered chorus of grunts, each louder than the next, as the younger boys struggled to prove that they, too, were masculine enough to bellow like angry cavemen.

Rosey walked halfway across campus before she took her fingers out of her ears, sure that Mozart’s Sixth Symphony in Grunt had subsided. Ugh , she thought, remembering the freshmen’s conversation. Probably another fire drill . At least it’ll be during Chance Block.

Nobody, least of all Rosey, understood Chance Block. Held after the final class every three days, the 45-minute period was one of those weird experiments to which private schools lik the Winthrop-Hall Institute for Technical Education (or WHITE, as all their sweaters read) occasionally subjected their students. Its official definition was completely incomprehensible, brimming with hallowed education buzzphrases such as “cooperative learning” and “21st century citizenship.” But as far as Rosey could tell, Chance Block boiled down to an awkward 45 minutes that athletes often missed for games. Since no administrator had the guts to send kids home early, they needed the time to be crucial—while also inconsequential. The only problem was, nobody had yet figured out how to make the period both vitally important and wholly unimportant. Instead, every few weeks the administrators opened up an old Monopoly set, picked a new Chance card—hence the name—and imposed whatever instructions they found on the students.

This week, the administrators pulled a blank card and decided the school would test its most revolutionary idea yet: assigning each teacher to babysit a random group of students who would figure out for themselves how to make the time educational.

Rosey couldn’t remember which of the middle-aged math teachers she had been assigned to (they were all just nerdy white guys in various stages of balding), but she did know that Courtney—the talkative girl from her AP Auctioneering class—was in the same group, so when the crowd thinned out, Rosey approached her.

“Hey, do you know where we’re going for Chance Block?” she asked, tapping Courtney on her shoulder.

“What’d you say?” Courtney said, whirling around to face Rosey. “Sorry. God, I’m so tired—I was up until five a.m. doing the Auctioneering paper. That book took, like, forevvvvver to read.” A five-page paper discussing the eight pound real estate book they’d read was due that day.

“You read it all last night?” Rosey couldn’t believe it. After all, they had been assigned little sections of the book each night for two weeks.

“Yes! I mean, okay, no, but like, Sparknotes takes a while to read, too.”

“Right,” Rosey laughed nervously. “Anyway, do you know where we’re going for Chance Block?”

Courtney giggled. “Of course, silly, I love Mr. Borkus. Follow me.”

As they walked, Rosey remembered that Courtney had announced a club.

“Hey, which club did you say you were starting?” Rosey asked. Everyone started clubs at WHITE, although only two or three of them ever got past the first meeting.

“The Diversity and Inclusivity club! It’s me and a bunch of my friends.”

“Oh,” replied Rosey, grimacing. An all-white diversity club. “Are you into, like, social justice and all that?”

Courtney shrugged. “I mean, enough. Whatever. Gotta get into college somehow.”

When they reached the math room, five or six other students were already there sitting around a large table with blank looks on their faces. There was Harry, the lacrosse player whose voice was usually hoarse from grunting; Samantha, the girl who was always doing homework; and some seniors Rosey didn’t know very well. Courtney sat across the table next to Harry, immediately opening her laptop—a rose gold Macbook—to the Brandy Melville website. Rosey, on the other hand, sat in the nearest empty seat.

While they waited for Mr. Borkus, Rosey watched Courtney’s fingers run absentmindedly through her hair. Maybe I should dye my hair blonde, too , Rosey thought, and straighten it. Her eyes traveled down to Courtney’s neck, where a golden letter C hung from a rose gold chain like an expensive name tag. I could be like her , thought Rosey. She imagined herself with the other girls taking pictures like the ones she always saw on Instagram, all of them in that pose that said “I’m not showing off my ass, but like, did I mention I have an ass?”

A clatter toward the front of the room yanked Rosey from her thoughts: Mr. Borkus had arrived.

“Hey guys, welcome to Chance Block.” Mr. Borkus began in a bored voice. “About half an hour ago a fire started in the cafeteria when a burnt-out teacher tried to panini press his computer. Unfortunately, all the fire extinguishers were crushed in that one experimental art project. Now, the principal said we’re supposed to let you all decide what to do about the fire, okay? He said it’ll be, like, a collaborative, 21st century, student-driven alternative assessment.”

Rosey looked around. Some of the students were on their computers; others were fast asleep. Rosey’s eyes began to feel heavy, too. Mr. Borkus was still talking. “—and so the only rule is you can’t be doing homework.” At this, Samantha’s eyes shot up from her work.

“Sorry, but can I do homework? There’s an Honors Puppetry assignment due tomorrow.” She motioned to two worn socks with frowny faces drawn on. “And did you say fire?”

“Yes!” Mr. Borkus seemed to be realizing how little anyone cared. “Guys! There’s a real fire—not a drill. It’s already spread to this building, so we need to figure out how to extinguish it.” Some students raised their heads, looked around groggily for a moment, then put them back down.

“We could use the water fountains—” offered a quiet boarding student named Tim.

“But can we please do homework?” Courtney interjected. A couple of students nodded in agreement.

“Yeah, why can’t we, like, work on our own stuff? Someone else will put out the fire,” agreed Harry, who, with his whirling mouse and laser-like focus on his computer, was clearly engaged in an epic round of Fortnite. Mr. Borkus looked to be at a loss for words, and an awkward silence fell over the room. Rosey tried to think of something to say, but the vast apathy of her classmates was paralyzing.

No one spoke. Harry was trying to conceal clouds of vapor as he puffed on his Juul. The room started to feel hot, smoke drifting in through the cracked door—or was that just another of Harry’s clouds? Mr. Borkus began to pace frantically, muttering to himself about student-driven death. Rosey was still deciding what to say when tongues of flame came under the door, ready to engulf the classroom.

Hewson Duffy is a 16 year old writer and photographer who attends St. Anne’s Belfield School in Charlottesville, VA. His work has been published in Aerie International and Polyphony Lit. When not writing, he is probably drinking chocolate milk.

Visual arts by Anastasia James. 

Pulse

Krystal Yang in this piece explores the voice of queer Chinese-Americans and how cultural influences can shape a person.

 

i.

The boys share a single room. They sleep on the floor, stomachs splayed on bamboo mats, passing stories in muffled whispers as their mothers’ incense filters through the sliding door. They lay in clusters and pop sunflower seeds in their mouths the way their grandmothers do every night in the kitchen, sticky rice glued to their gums to fill in missing teeth. Tonight the boys debate whether they can sneak beer from the night market. Zhou thinks that there will be pretty girls from Beijing, the ones with wide set hips and straight eyebrows and fake double-eyelids carved on the front of cheap magazines that the boys hide beneath the floorboards. The boys lick the salt from their lips and under the blankets you can taste swordfish and pickled vegetables fermenting between their teeth. Yong claims an old man once beat him for stealing cigarettes from a push cart. He rolls down his pants to show everyone his purpling bruise. Wang Wen doesn’t believe him, kicks Yong in the shin and cusses him out with words that would later be washed out with his father’s fingers down his throat. Limbs push and pull against each other as the boys arm-wrestle, placing bets to see who will be the first one to sneak through the window. Bei Qing bumps into another boy, the one named Chao Cheng whose chin grows facial hair as sparse as the fuzz on rambutan fruit. Piss off, duanxiu, Chao Cheng shoves him away. He spits from the space between his two front teeth. Bei Qing rolls over, feels a foot come down on his neck, hot and thick against his throat. Duanxiu, dianxiu, the other boys chatter. Short-sleeves, short-sleeves. They pile on him, a feast of humming termites and whistling cicadas, snapping their fingernails against his back, dotting his skin with red bites. In the other room, the fathers slide their hands across their laps and the mothers get on their knees and pray, pray their sons go off to university and become doctors in America and marry delicate wives with V-shape chins and thin calves perched upon tiny feet. Behind the symphony of fluttering hands and cracking belts and rustling clothes, Bei Qing’s mother prays for her son to marry a lady, marry her until she drowns in oranges and rice wine and her stomach swells twice times—once for a boy and once for a girl.

ii.

Bei Qing. The professor never gets his name right, always pronounces it bitching. Bitching, bitching, bitching. The class laughs and the professor flushes red, blue veins popping out from her forehead. The girls sitting behind Bei Qing giggle in sharp intonations. Mei guo qi, American flag, they cackle. Today the class studies Emperor Ai of Han. All the students remember the story from high school, but the professor insists they don’t. When she opens her mouth, Bei Qing realizes she does not speak in an English he understands. He squirms in his chair and watches the boy sitting in front of him. The boy spits on his desk and uses his finger to spread the wetness across the table. When it dries, he reaches his hand under his shirt and wipes what’s left on his stomach. The girls behind him shift around, hike their skirts up a little higher and gossip in a dialect Bei Qing doesn’t recognize. The professor is engrossed in her own motions, pointing to an image on the projector. It’s a painting of the emperor and his commander. The commander’s head lays on his lap, face fixed in a calm smile. It’s the passion of the cut sleeve—rather than waking his commander, the emperor simply cuts off the sleeve of his robes, leaving the other man undisturbed. The professor uses a yardstick to outline a triangle on the painting. Renaissance beauty, she explains. This three-sided composition. Heavily inspired by Italian artists, no doubt. She shrugs her shoulders, pushes her glasses into her bulging forehead. How many of you are familiar with the story of the cut-sleeve? It’s spectacular, really. Spectacular. The boy sitting in front of Bei Qing wets his thumb and forefinger again before raising his hand, slick and shiny. He ignores the professor’s glare and asks, did the emperor also chop off his arm off? 

iii.

Bei Qing proposes to the girl on her nineteenth birthday. They fly back to Beijing but lose themselves on their way to City Hall. They stop at street vendors and old men huddled on cardboard boxes, mouths forming shapes but sounds getting caught on their tongues. It’s a hellish midnight hour and they’re whisked underground by the enticing smell of salt and smoke. A single room, surrounded by heavy limbs and heavy breath and heavy bodies swaying in the hiccups and the laughter. Everywhere bleeds music, and Bei Qing feels the bass pass through him with every stroke. His wife sits next to him at the bar, one leg draped over his, the other clinging to a stranger’s ankle. Bei Qing finds the boy thrashing against the far wall. He is dressed in a silver suit with matching pants and nothing underneath. His jacket throws blue and white across his face. His neck is pink from a single shot of baijiu, his chest as bare as the professor’s engorged forehead. Mei quo qi, mei guo qi, the words are passed under tables and between wadded bills. There’s a not-quite-throbbing in Bei Qing’s head. Thoughts protruding in sharp angles, begging for release. So he waits, runs a hand down his wife’s calf and teases her hair with his middle finger. He stares past the crowd to observe the curve of the boy’s Adam’s apple, to count the red marks on his collarbone. The boy is swarmed with bodies, bulging thighs, fabric and flesh cut from broken wine bottles. Ya nan, Bei Qing’s father would call them, whisking the young boys out of the night markets, ya nan ya nan ya nan. Bei Qing feels one slide up next to him, dressed in a sleeveless white shirt and metal cuffs, a holy uniform, the kind his mother wore when she bent in half between Buddha’s legs and prayed for her son with her mouth wide open and she prayed so hard and she prayed until her upper lip melted with sweat and her tongue tingled with a bitterness she couldn’t swallow. Bei Qing’s hand tightens on his drink. He takes a sip, curls his lips around his teeth and holds the ice cube there, numbing his chin. But the pounding in his head gets louder, more insistent, and Bei Qing knows this warmth, this slow buildup of warmth in his gut and the drumbeat heat radiating off his cheeks. He loops his fingers through his belt loops and swallows. Across the bar, the boy continues to dance, his spine bending and bowing, still searching, still seeking. A ya nan rips off his jacket and three more bear down on the dragon tattoo etched on his shoulder. China’s symbol of divinity, legs spread, mouth weaving through slick bodies, dribbling saliva as the boy waves and ripples beneath the pulsing lights. Krystal Yang is a high school senior from BASIS Independent Silicon Valley in San Jose, California. Her work, inspired by her travels and personal experiences, has been featured in Crashtest Magazine, Polyphony Lit, and Rising Star Magazine. Aside from writing fiction, she is also a lover of dance, sharks, and green tea (unsweetened).