Wong Halmoni

I knew Wong Halmoni¹ through my mother’s stories. From these stories I gathered two images of her: she had given everything to her church even while she was poor, and she once took my mother “shopping” to buy a live chicken from the market and cook it into soup. My mother and her brother cried inconsolably, their tears mixing with the glistening oils of the stock as they spooned the steamed chicken into their mouths. Later they would profess that there was nothing else like it.

As we drove to meet Wong Halmoni in Hwe-in, her hometown, I turned these stories over and over in my mind, the same way I rolled skipping stones in my hands before flinging them into the river. The kind of stones that fit right into your palm, the kind you could wrap your fingers around and press into every fissure and smooth surface–firm, tangible, knowable. Not like Wong Halmoni. My impression of her was little more than “generous old woman.”

The radio songs began to crackle with static, signaling our nearing arrival–Hwe-in had poor reception. It was yet another isolating factor for Wong Halmoni, who already lived by herself in a small rural town. As the soft static hummed through the air, my excitement to meet Wong Halmoni trickled into curiosity towards this woman who seemed to be a saint and yet also quite alone. 

“Why have I never met her before?” I asked my mother. 

She paused.

“I guess it’s because she lives in Korea and we don’t,” she said.

“Do her kids visit her?”

“I think they do,” she hesitated, “maybe once a year. They live in the city, about an hour away, but I’m sure they could visit more…”

She trailed off. We sat the rest of the car ride in silence. 

When we arrived, Wong Halmoni greeted us without stepping out of her house. A smile touched her eyes. Come in, come in, she motioned. I peered into the room. Her floor was made of substrate and dirt. She began moving on her hands and knees, swinging her elbows in jerky movements to inch her body forward, her legs dragging behind like dead weight. My mother asked her what she was doing, but she just kept walking–no, crawling–and in the next moment our confused silence was splintered by my mother’s stammers in Korean and abrupt ruptures into the English that I could understand.

“…When did this…”

“…Your legs…”

“…Nobody told me…”

They spoke back and forth in rapid Korean, and I strained my ears to understand a word or two. My mother later translated what Wong Halmoni said: she fell, the surgery wasn’t good, she couldn’t use her legs, but she was managing just fine, praise God. With that, Wong Halmoni carried on pulling herself across the floor with her elbows, and all I could hear was dragging and scraping, all I could think was where are her children?

Then I saw them on her walls, their photos everywhere. I was everywhere, alongside them. There were pictures from when I was born to my first day of school to my last birthday. A light peeked through the window, washing over the photos in a warm yellow. It was a wall common enough in our family to recognize it: this was a prayer wall. This was where she visited every morning and every night, asking God to keep her children’s health, to keep our strength. I took in her figure beside me–her white gossamer hairs that caught the light, her creased hands, her back hunkered over, her shallow breaths in and out, never uttering a word of complaint. Before I ever knew her, I realized, before she ever knew me, she had been praying for me. 

In that moment I sat beside her with a rising sense of suffocation, as I fumbled with all the words I would say to her if only I could speak Korean. I wanted to take her papery hands in mine, the way my mother did. Tell her that I missed her and was glad to see her, the way my mother did. But my mother’s relationship with Wong Halmoni was different the way her Korean was different from mine–the syllables were soft and loose and smooth in her mouth, while mine were clumsy, brief. At one point Wong Halmoni tilted her chin towards me and called me yeppuda. Pretty. I thanked her in broken Korean, smiling more than was natural to compensate for my blundering accent. For the rest of the afternoon I sat wedged in between them, too embarrassed to ask my mother to translate word for word, studying their expressions instead to make sense of their conversation. Wong Halmoni kept her gaze even, her voice gravelly. Mother reached forward to touch her wrist every now and then. I nodded along, not quite understanding. And when it was time to leave, I couldn’t help but feel that despite discovering that my great-grandmother had loved me my whole life, I hardly knew her enough. 

Some time later, after we left Korea, I would stop by the river to find a skipping stone. Examine it, then fling it far away. Watch it grow smaller and smaller until it becomes a dot in a space I can never reach. Hold my breath as it sinks into the deep blue, slipping out my field of vision like a memory.

 

¹Korean for “great-grandmother”

 

Miye Sugino is a seventeen-year-old who grew up in Tokyo and now lives in LA. Her work is published or forthcoming in Parallax Online, Cathartic Youth Literary Magazine, and HS Insider, among others. She will be attending the Kenyon Review Young Writers Workshop this summer.

Visual Art By: Heidi Songqian Li

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Kido

First Encounter

 

That skinny boy darts through the hallways of our apartment, switches our intercom on and off,presses all the buttons in our elevator, circles about each floor until he has touched every doorknob, humming a single note throughout. Hooooooo. I follow close behind at the request of my mother, who doesn’t want him to get lost. Each time he peeks back at me to find that yes, I am still there, he giggles behind his palms. “He’s never been invited to another person’s home before,” his mother confesses. I am no less bewildered.

 

My Mother Says

 

He is ten years old, he is in my younger brother’s grade, his classmates pinch him until bruises bloom across his arms and legs, they tell him to go back to special ed, he considers them his friends, he is invited to our home to make real ones, his name is Kido. Not “kiddo,” but “kee-doh.”

 

Rain

 

The rain comes suddenly, spilling over the glass, blurring together the red tail lights and street signs and road ahead of us into indistinct shapes. Kido’s mother stiffens and asks Kido to bear what’s coming for just a little while, and when the window wipers start swishing back and forth, Kido shrieks and howls for so long that I cover his ears and eyes with my hands to blot the world out. He throws up.

 

Navigation

 

The second time they visit, my mother asks me to wait for them by the elevator–our hallways are a maze to navigate. Kido leads the way instead. “Over here,” he says and stops at each corner, making sure that we are still following him. Making sure we haven’t lost him. When he pushes the intercom, a familiar tone rings through the air. Hooooooo. Later I ask his mother if he has perfect pitch, and she is surprised that I noticed.

 

Beauty

 

Kido teaches me and my mother which jams to spread over the crackers and assures me that there is no sesame in anything, he has checked. I can’t recall telling him that I have a sesame allergy. As we eat in silence, his mother, winking at us first, asks him why he is acting shy.“It makes me nervous to be around beautiful people,” he says, then bites into his cracker. I laugh because the only other person who calls me beautiful is my grandmother.

 

His Name

 

When I tell Kido’s mother that I wish everyone else would hurry up and see what they were missing, a strange glimmer sets in her eyes–the expression of one remembering something forgotten long ago. Kido, she finally says, is a Korean name. And in Korean, his name means “prayer.”

 
 
 
 

Miye Sugino is a seventeen-year-old who grew up in Tokyo and now lives in LA. Her work is published or forthcoming in Parallax OnlineCathartic Youth Literary Magazine, and HS Insider, among others. She will be attending the Kenyon Review Young Writers Workshop this summer.
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Something About Living

The veteran lives in his daughter’s house. He draws his curtains and lies on his bed. Its frame creaks, and it rots, and its mattress depresses with his weight, and a war torn land crosses his mind again. He thinks of barrenness, as he lies in his bed. But in spite of the sounds that come and stay, he lies and finds comfort in his bed’s depression.

He glances at his nightstand. A lamp, unlit, rests atop. A sepia woman sits next to it, captured in a photograph, darkened by light’s shadow—insignificant to the forgetful veteran. She had fled him, he had fled her. Besides the war he forgets most things.

He reaches for the nightstand in hopes of remembrance. He aims for the sepia woman, but he shakes and shakes more. The hand, a steamship, transports to the nightstand. But the hand, the feminine fingertips, the importance, the ship, she diverts her path—her hull trembles. She succumbs to a brighter light, guiding her into deeper, bluer obscurity. Steam puffs and flies in a different direction. She changes her course, the ocean’s breezes. The hand finds itself atop the handle of an antique drawer. She forgets again the photograph for which she had once lived. But reasons to live are only memories to the ship, drunken by the ocean. 

The hand clenches the nightstand’s hinge, and she pulls toward her person. The drawer glides ajar to reveal tall bottles, hard liquor, poison to the curtains, drawn evermore. The veteran thinks of war and screaming memories. The steam’s puffing and flying ceases, the dark room falls silent, and the drawer empties along with the old man’s mind, drunken.

Adjacent to the veteran’s room, a boy sits in a caned chair facing a mirror he stole from his mother’s vanity. His window grants passage to a mid-afternoon light, readying itself for the profound tone it saves for evening and night. He had grown up wishing for a lake by his house, one to reflect the colors of a setting sun, perhaps to echo birds’ songs. 

The old man’s sorrows reach his grandson. The boy hears an opening of a drawer and a clinking of tall bottles, making way for more clinking and more bottles and emptiness. However, he does not dwell on the tall bottles, but the thin walls, and he wishes quiet, blissful little things for his grandfather. He hopes these things would happen within their lifetimes, but maybe ideals belong to a world with a lakeview through his window. Maybe bliss belongs to a world of birds’ melodies. 

Deliberately the boy studies himself in the mirror. He hopes to the mirror often, mostly for materials, objects to display and then to discard. But today he hopes for clarity. He sees an unbrushed hair and combes it to his scalp. The mirror reflects a beauty, one exclusive to novelty and soft changes in light. 

First the walls hear clinking of full bottles, then empty ones. They hear an old man sigh dimly upon a glance of a photograph; he obliges another drink. And the boy who sees himself in the looking glass sighs, too, as he hopes and prepares for changes and a setting sun. Maybe a setting sun could bring him acceptance. The walls mute the family’s stilling echoes. 

As his mother warms gravy in the kitchen, the doorbell rings, and the boy descends to where the wallpaper peels in the foyer. The doorway’s opening reveals a boy his age, who smiles at the sight of him. The boy leads his visitor to an area outside the screened-in-porch. He closes the door shut before arriving there, however, and he smiles back at his guest. The door sends an echo throughout the house, which travels to a room with drawn curtains. 

The veteran had been sleeping, his fingertips embracing tall bottles. He had heard a door meet its threshold and, somewhere in the scape, a latch accept its lock. He wakes and moves to the windows and furls their drapes. The daylight instills in him a feeling so warm that he chooses to furl the rest of the blinds and do away with them completely for the evening. He looks outside from his bedroom’s vantage, escaping his dark room through the pane. He searches for the person who closed the door, who made him furl his drapes. 

The veteran sees his instiller of light, his grandson, standing before his daughter’s house’s façade. He presses delicate hands to the window and sees another boy smiling slowly at his grandson. It seems as though the guest offers something to the boy, something blurred, as the old man’s eyeglasses render useless from the nightstand. The boy’s hand approaches the guest’s in reach of the blur. Gently it transfers between the two silhouettes, and after, the guest’s eyes shimmer for a moment, which passes so quickly that if the old man upstairs had blinked or drunk or died, he would have missed the shimmer.

He is unsure of what overcame his grandson in response to this shimmer. His countenance directs away from his window. However, he believes his grandson reciprocated the guest’s sentiment, as their hands still linger where the blur’s transfer had taken place. Then the guest holds tighter to his grandson’s hand for one unapologetic second. 

He leaves the front door and the screened-in porch and the boy, who smiles slowly, stunned.

The veteran realizes the possibility of there having been no object, no blur, and their hands only touched because of the moment’s clarity. They were only but silhouettes, after all. He notices his fingertips embracing nothing but the window.

The sun descends loftily. The veteran no longer thinks of war and screaming things, but of his grandson, who held a boy’s hand and found acceptance under the shadow of a setting sun. 

An unfamiliar sobriety shields the old man’s face. He looks at the sepia woman atop his nightstand, and he sentinels himself before her. The window, blurry yet tender, had reminded him to protect her, their memory. In truth, he may have seen her in color for one fraction of a moment. 

He turns on the lamp next to her. He lets it shine onto her frame, giving her light like his grandson had for him. He becomes her sun like he had become his. He remembers forgotten things and descends to his daughter, who warms gravy in the kitchen. He brings his glasses with him. 

—Adelaide, he says at the bottom of the stairs. He sees clearly. He pauses. He repeats himself and apologizes. He mumbles subtleties to his daughter. His eyes tear slightly, blueing lightly. My darling, he says quietly. He whispers to her more.

His daughter leans over the stove but releases her wooden spoon after hearing his mournful cadence repaired. She lets go. She holds his face and serves him dinner. 

The boy, however, forgoes his mother’s gravy while he protects his guest’s path and watches it stretch into disappearance outside. Our lifetimes will meet again, he thinks. But in the meantime, I’ll stay with your memory. The walls might forever hold the smell of that night’s gravy. 

His path disappears, so the boy comes inside. The sun has set. He sees his mother holding onto, collapsing her entirety onto a delicate man who misses evening meals. His shoulders, scarred from the land where they fought and the bottles they emptied, feel embraced, beloved, felt. 

The veteran sees his grandson enter the kitchen. He lets his eyeglasses glide the bridge of his nose. The boy seems delighted and his mother complete, but the old man shows no emotion and says not a word. He only breathes a labial hum one expels when they can finally grasp something with an intense understanding.

His grandson had shifted something inside him. Unclear whether he feels heavier or more light, he knows nothing left him, but something old thawed. A war inside the veteran had broken; a window, opened. His grandson had alighted him from the nightstand, from the sepia woman, from the depression in his mattress. 

The old man considers thanking his grandson for daylight and for remembrance. He had shown him a setting sun, something about life, and something about living. 

Meanwhile, the boy thinks again of his guest. The setting sun had brought him what he wanted. He imagines a songbird’s call echoing off a lake. He feels the same tingling he had earlier, yielded by that affectionate hand on his.

Adelaide lets down her hair and pulls out a chair after hanging her apron by the stovetop. She sees her father already sitting, already sniffing warm gravy, already dropping warm, blue tears onto his placemat with every glance he steals from her son.

At the table, the veteran sees his grandson thinking of another boy’s shimmering eyes. So with his own, the grandfather weeps volumes of prideful acceptance.

Benjamin Herdeg is a high school student who just started creative writing over the summer, during the pandemic. He “uses writing as a vent into which he pours lots of emotion and unfinished thoughts.”

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To Linger

When I called my mother from the settling dark of the cold November night, she was unprepared for the news. She rushed down forty floors of cold apartment steel with the tiny shovel and gloves in her hands, ran across the cold dead rubber of the playground floor in her purple rain boots. All I could do was point with shaking eyes and strained fingers at the cold box in the kudzu. I remember my cold fingers all but digging through my shirt, watching my mother trudge over the undergrowth like she had done every night for over a year, bending over to push apart the bushes like she had done every autumn night. The dead leaves crunched under her feet.

 

I remember being sent to wash my hands- wash the scent of deteriorating mammal from my pores. I remember looking into my own eyes and telling myself over and over, this was bound to happen, this was bound to happen. When I returned, my mother was holding a small, stiff bundle wrapped in a red blanket. And as she lowered the cold form into the hoary ground, the tears finally burst from my eyes- I crumpled in front of the small hole, unable to form words but begging his name over and over in the small prison of my clenched hands.

 

His name was Mang-gae. I named him on a malingering summer evening, crisp and clean as the first bite of an apple. I named him for a wrinkled, ugly traditional rice-cake- didn’t the orange kitten look a lot like a rice-cake, rounded and scrunched up? I named him for longevity-the ugliest names will go the longest. I named him first. Out of the litter of five, he was the first to venture out into the open air, buttery and clean and yet infused with the limber grip of summer. He hissed at me as he ate snacks from my hand- then came back for more. I recall that one evening he swiped at me and left a bloody gash on my left palm, but was forgiven with the slightest brush of his whiskers against my mosquito-bitten calf the next day. I loved him as one would love a younger brother- complaining yet with a ferocity impossible to hide.

 

When he was named, it was as if he sprung up from a bed of identical kittens as a fully grown tiger- his face popped out at me like a flashlight from the box his family lived in. I learned his features. The pink nose, the high forehead, the delicate stripes on the back of his head. I learned his habits- the quirk of the tail when he was pleased, the negligent hiss when he pretended to turn his back on me. My father would watch him jump in and out of the same cardboard box for hours on end, almost purring with him when he settled down. I squatted in front of his closed eyes, wishing every day to speak to him.

 

Sometimes these days, I wonder what a year meant in the life of a fun-sized ginger cat. Was it an expanse of time he didn’t dare to encompass with a single flick of his paw? Or did the year he spent with us fly past like his baby-faced meow? I suppose I never will know. But if Mang-gae asked me the same question, asked me my bulksome human opinion on our shared year in broken yowls and hisses, I would tell him it meant more than any bond I had ever shared, whispering sweet nothings to him as if he had never left. Every summer night I spent with him seemed rosy with the remnants of the evening sun, but now I know that light was never the verdant vermilion of a summer day but his blooming warmth leaning against my hand. To look into the eyes of a creature unable to speak and enjoy its company was unbelievably precious, precious beyond conversational frippery and dated gestures. He changed my world solely with his acknowledgment of its existence.

 

To be able to look at a feather and think of someone who won’t be able to remark on it- to look at a torn sleeve and automatically see the night it ripped play out in front of your eyes. To trace an old scar on your finger, so faint you can barely see it, and forgive the claw that ripped it a thousand times over. To wonder if the small furry mind thinks the same. To wonder out loud to a bare grave, wonder if the hours I spent with you meant the same to you and know the answer before the tears hit the earth. To indulge in the vivacity of a living being during its short tenure on earth. To see it flown, escaped from its shallow prison of clay. I pushed my feet against the ground and begged the name that now meant nothing but a wrinkled, cheap rice-cake. Why had I ever named you for longevity? The dirt kept settling over the red blanket, over and over and over.

 

When my mother prompted me to say a few words for you, I could not. How could I ever let fly in a few words a bond that had never been expressed in words? Sobbing, I stammered out a generic prayer. I wish for you to be happy, I wish you all the things I could never give you, I wish for you to live in a haven with all the small things that make you happy- pureed cat snacks, inexpensive neon toys, cardboard boxes rimmed with cheap yellow tape and God knows what else. Certain things can only be said in words, clumsy and awkward. Some nights I have wanted to call after you, wherever you live now in the clouds. Most nights I did not know what to call, and now I think I may understand. You were many things- none of them spoken, many of them simply felt. And when I leave as you took flight, I should like to linger as you did- not as a broken call malingering in the kudzu, but as the fading light of a summer day, inexpressible in words yet blooming in syllables of faint touch.

 

Min Lee is a sophomore at St Georges School in Rhode Island. She enjoys reading fiction and creative nonfictions. Her interest in the field of neuroscience will lead her to pursue the study in college.
Visual Art by: Rita Yiting Ruan
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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.

Art by Saki

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Piano Player Fingers

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

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Welcome to the Galapagos!

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 Baslel Addisu

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The Lady Downstairs

 

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

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Barefoot

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 

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Perfect Case of OCD

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 
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