Author: Molly Smith

Art by Edward Lee

The Index of Secrets

The earth is a volatile, shifting being, its wonders both hidden and revealed.  Magma bubbles and flows thirty kilometers below its surface, a place where time doesn’t exist, forever searching for cracks and weaknesses to squeeze through to exposure and make itself known. To be seen.

You’ve held secrets that have behaved in much the same way, squirming in their tightly locked chambers, seeking release, wanting to feel light on the curve of their shame. Some secrets you’ve kept well but for some you make a crack, lever it wide enough to glimpse the heat of compression.

When you were a child and through your teenage years you kept the secret of your father’s volatility.  You hid the flux of his erratic behaviour, his bullying and occasional violence.  The walls of your house made a broiling chamber, cracks emerging and resealing, and you learned to keep your emotions hidden, your true self buried deep inside the solidity of your shell.

The lava of a shield volcano has low viscosity, inching forward over a long period of time.  One year was the time it took for your sister to tell you she was married.  She gathered your family in a restaurant and announced you were there to celebrate her first wedding anniversary.  You remember a moment of shocked silence before your family made the accepted celebratory noises.  This was many years ago but you still feel the hurt of this deceit, spread low across the ground of your life, and your father raises it when he’s angry, when he feels someone needs to account for their bad behaviour.

Stratovolcanoes are tall, with rocks and ash and multiple kinds of lava exploding from their mouths.  This is how you thought of your father as you grew up.  A looming, unpredictable presence.  Your own character by contrast became ever more contained, emotions of any kind wrestled into the confines of your implacable exterior.  Even now, years after understanding why this is so, you find it difficult to express spontaneous emotions, particularly anger or fear. 

You once had a relationship with a man much younger than yourself.  When you met him you didn’t know how much anxiety he held inside himself, how sometimes it stopped him from leaving the house.  In the few months you spent together you only went out in public together once.  You both knew this affair was a transient thing and eventually you ended it gently, but still his fears erupted into rage after he returned to his home, destroying a door and throwing a room into disarray.  The more secrets he held onto, the more his surfaces cracked.

The Volcano Explosivity Index is the scale used to measure the amount a volcano releases during eruption.  You would like a way to measure the destructive power of a secret, to evaluate the potential pain of exposure for yourself and for others, compared to the damage to your mind and spirit by keeping it safely hidden. You would like this to be a colourful chart, or some kind of mechanism with a golden arrow to indicate a sliding scale from gentle discomfort to eruptive destruction (whose level might be called explosure).

You are currently holding a secret in plain sight.  Your lover’s ex-wife is someone you know, but she does not know about your love.  You and your lover go out together where she may see you, so you feel the secret is not a secret at all, at best a shield volcano of openness.  You feel that this secret is not yours to tell, but when she does discover the truth you anticipate an eruption, ash and cinders and lava thrown high into the sky to burn the air and everything it touches, the golden arrow springing violently to level red.

Volcanoes are classified as active, dormant, or extinct. Your father is now an old man, and while you know he still has the same broiling deep beneath his surface you consider him to be dormant, no longer a threat.  You wonder if a secret can ever be extinct. The truth of it surely lives on even after death.

Cinder cone volcanoes erupt briefly and then settle, as though misunderstanding the intensity of their turmoil.  Perhaps when the truth is revealed to your lover’s ex-wife, you’ll find the eruption of your imagination is a phantom, merely a fire born of fear.  You hope you’ll be relieved by this move towards growth, but you suspect you’ll be disappointed by any casualness or easy acceptance. You are not proud of this.

When secrets burn too deeply in their subterranean chambers, doors are destroyed, family are estranged, ex-wives become singed. So you try to reveal the compressed heat of your own shame with your voice or your pen, and sometimes this levers a skylight in others, a crack that releases the slow lava of their thought and soul, a glowing magma that wants to make itself known, wants to be seen.  The resulting shield volcano has a surface rippled with trust, a testament to the earth’s truth, in a place where time doesn’t exist.

Note: This lyric essay/prose poem is a hybrid work and can be categorized as both creative nonfiction and poetry by the author.

A Saturday in Paris

the hands of a clock
raise arms in desperation
fighting against time

It was Saturday and I had made up my mind to waste the day. I never made plans for a weekend. I just let the day roll towards me by the hour, or let the hours pass by slowly. 

I walked down the street, crossed Rue Lafayette, and saw my friend Loïc, from Brittany, from a distance. He sat in front of his antique shop, sedate, thick and comfortable, with a Gauloise in the corner of his mouth, and, already in the early morning, in front of him, a glass of red wine on a small round table. 

He said that he had just dealt with some customers who, of course, had bought nothing, but only had complained about the bad times. 

They were now standing sadly, like death birds, ‘les oiseaux du mort’, as he put it smugly with raised eyebrows, on the other side of the street, looking at the display in a bookshop. Following my gaze, he sighed, without losing the cigarette from the corner of his mouth: Ah, les français.  

I let him reach into the paper bag I was holding and shared with him the small croissants I had just picked up from Boulangerie Dujardin, which were still warm.

His shop was full of rarities, such as old radios, boxes of old photographs, medals and decorations, old toys, which generate memories, porcelain dishes and figures.

“Can you take my place for a moment? I have to pick something up from the pharmacy,” Loïc asked.  

Some Saturday morning idlers poked their heads into the door but decided to move on. 

A while later, an old, bent over man with a black slouch hat entered the shop. I could barely see his face. His accent sounded German. 

“I come back to this Meissen porcelain figure.” 

He pointed to the shelf. There were about ten figures displayed. 

To find out which one he meant, I said: “Why don’t you take the figurine in your hand, it will speak to you?” 

He carefully took one, representing a shepherdess with a lamb, in his trembling hands and carefully put it back in slow motion.

I stepped closer to the shelf to see the price. On a small sticker, written in Loïc’s handwriting, it showed 250 euros.

He said: “It was mine; the figurine and I are the only of our family which are left. I got it on my Bar Mitzvah.

My questioning look made him continue.

“From one minute to the next we had to leave our flat. I was separated from my parents at the station Gare d’Austerlitz, where we were rounded up to be deported. My father had implored me to go into hiding. I escaped to Spain but never saw my parents again. Our flat was ransacked, all our possessions taken.

By chance, I was made aware of this antique shop by Mrs Belmonte, who owns a bookshop in Rue Liancourt.

I have been searching antique shops for years. But fate leads us to what we are looking for. It is often mysterious. Maybe the dead lead us.”

“But there may be several similar figures on the market. How can you be so sure it is yours?” I asked him.

“Turn the figure over.”

Two Hebrew letters in gold lettering were on the underside. Gold on white. Alef Beit. A B

“The initials of Aaron Blatt…That is my name. How much do I owe you?”

“The price tag says EUR 250.”

“You might expect that I will try to beat the price down. On the contrary, I would like to reward the owner. I will take that price as a basis, plus appreciation, handling, storage, interest…” He thought with his head down. “Let us say EUR 550?” 

“That’s a lot of money.”

“Money is only printed paper and I like to spend it to repair suffering, to free myself from the past.”  

Wrapping tissue lay on the counter and I carefully wrapped the figure. He took it, almost tenderly, put it in his old leather bag, left the banknotes on the counter, and with a slight limp left the shop and disappeared.

I saw Loïc on his return hobbling across the street.

Ça va?” his sonorous bass voice resounded.

“I represented you well and I just sold a Meissen figure, the shepherdess.” 

“For how much?? For the full price?” 

I nodded. 

“You are a genius. It has been sitting on the shelf for years, gathering dust. Who bought it?” 

“A Mr. Blatt, and he added a good bit to it.” I told him the story.

“Oh yes, I think I remember him.” 

“He said a Mrs. Belmonte had recommended your shop.”

“Ah, Mrs. Belmonte. She is a bit weird, creepy. Has an antiquarian bookshop near the catacombs. So, so, Mrs. Belmonte? Hmmm. Her nickname is Chaperon blanc. White riding hood. She is a witch, white magic, you know?  

“She had settled in the 14th arrondissement as a mature woman in the 60’s with her father who died shortly after their arrival. From where she came nobody knows. She must be over 100. Strange.

“I will tell you what, I will close for the day and we will visit her antiquarian bookshop, you will be interested, you are a book lover, the antiquarian bookshop is unique. And a little creepiness whets the appetite. I’ll invite you to a bistro tonight.”

Loïc closed his shop and we drove with his old, likewise “antique,” Renault 4 in about ten minutes via Place de la Concorde, down Boulevard Raspail, past the Cimetière du Montparnasse to Rue Liancourt

When we dove over Boulevard Raspail, Loïc said: “Do you know that we are driving over six million dead. Beneath us are the catacombs of Paris.”

The bookshop was in a street with a few small shops and bistros, one of which, oddly enough, was called Les Petites Sorcières. White facades, with wrought-iron balconies and wooden shutters, gave the street a Mediterranean flair. 

From the outside, the bookshop was inconspicuous, rather unspectacular, with a plain shop sign over a heavy entrance door ‘Librairie Belmonte.’ When we opened the door, the pleasant, peculiar smell of books hit me. I loved this smell and absorbed it, hoped to internalize all the wisdom these books contained.  

The first thing I noticed when we walked into the bookshop was that in the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, the books were arranged horizontally, lying flat, with the spines parallel to the shelf so that you avoid tilting your head, rather than lining books vertically, spines perpendicular to the shelves, as most people do. As I looked across a layer of bookshelves, I could see a neat arrangement of stacks of books, each about 10 to 12 books high. The second thing I noticed was smaller books placed vertically, nestled in between these stacks of large books as if to plug in the holes. 

Loïc nudged me. I turned around. In front of me stood a small woman with snow-white hair and a face that belied her age. Her eyes were light, ethereal blue, which made them  seem almost entirely white and eerie.

“What can I do for you?” she asked in a voice with a dark timbre.

“Mr Blatt, whom you directed to my shop, bought a porcelain figure today. Thank you. I wanted to show my friend Édouard your bookshop. He’s a book addict.”

“Mr Blatt? But he died six months ago. I attended his funeral.”

Loïc looked confused, puzzled, but said nothing. Mrs. Belmonte did not react. It seemed to have no meaning for her or did not surprise her.

I said “You have an impressive collection of books. Probably you are often confronted with the silly question: ‘Have you read all these books?’”

“Yes, I have. I only recommend books I have read.” 

I looked around. Roughly 5,000 books. Maybe the same amount on the upper floor.

I calculated, generously estimating 6 days reading time for a book equals 60,000 days, divided by 365 days per year equals 164 years.  

Although minimalistic, the shop seemed out of time, with a somehow wearying, overshadowed atmosphere I could not describe.

She looked at me penetratingly. “What are you interested in?”

“Poetry, philosophy, some contemporary writers. Walser, Dürrenmatt, Houellebecq, Handke.“

“Books contain secrets and mysteries, especially these old books, some are nearly 200 years old. This is where our secrets lie. All existed before. We are just moving in a loop. We think we have died but are only in another sphere and think it is still our reality.”

She pointed to the left.

“If you take one of these books at random, the book will reveal your past. Here,” and she pointed to the right, “a book will contain your wish which will never come true and here in the middle you will find your biggest regrets in your life.” 

I hesitated. Who wants to discover what might have been missed and what one did wrong? It reminded me of a habit of my grandfather who closed his eyes, opened the bible, and pointed blindly on a piece of text, which would give him a sign, advice or hint for the day or in time of distress.

“You have an interesting theory of death”, I said, “I think death is the only calculable and reliable thing in life.”

 “Have you ever visited the catacombs, this collection of death?”

I shook my head.

“Come with me,” she pointed with her head to the back of the shop.

“She will show you the ‘Chamber of Horrors,’” whispered Loïc.

We walked to the end of the bookshop, past all those tempting books.

She opened a door, ahead of us stairs that ran into a basement.

We descended many stairs, then walked along narrow dimly lit corridors, seemingly a network of old tunnels stretching under Paris, cavernous passages, until we reached an extraordinary sight, a part of the subterranean ossuary: bones and skulls, all stacked neatly, part of the remains of inhabitants from many graveyards from the past to find their final eternal rest in the former limestone mines, remains collected from improper burials, open graves, abandoned graveyards and unearthed corpses.  

The words abyss came to my mind and the words: ‘..he descended into the realm of death…’

“Do you know the poem Memento by Mascha Kaléko?” she asked.

“Yes….” I said.   

I am not afraid of my own death,

Only of the death of those who have been close and dear to me. 

How shall I ever live if they are no longer here with me?… she recited.

She jumped swiftly up the stairs, turned around and for a moment it seemed to me that I was looking at the face of a young girl.

After I had felt my way back up through the semi-darkness, I stood in front of the shelves with the old books that had magically fascinated me. I stood in front of the middle shelf.

I randomly grabbed a book, a thick tome, that had attracted me, and bought it.

Mrs. Belmonte smiled sadly. “You have a lot of regrets.”

Erin Elise Art

The Separation Anxiety

All the while I was aware of what would happen with Jakie later. He had been trailing behind Seema all across the house since she had worn that perfume. His insecurity returned and grasped him wholly as he followed us into the bedroom and saw the bags were packed up. He traveled across the room sniffing, inspecting corner to corner, as if it was a new territory to explore, and climbed up the bed. I said, “You are going mad for no reason.” He jumped off the bed and sat down at Seema’s feet.

Seema, cloaked in a newly bought overcoat, had been sitting next to me on the edge of the bed for fifteen minutes without uttering a word. Her hand was in mine; our hands were resting in my lap. Her handbag and a luggage bag were placed beside her left foot, propped against the bed, waiting to be lifted and carried out.

Two weeks ago, Seema had first shown her desire to go back to Banglore to spend time with her sisters and friends in a warmer place; it had started getting cold up here in Uttrakhand. But with a different pretext each time, I refused her. However, at supper last night, while discussing what should be done with Jakie if we go out again to earn a living, our light-hearted arguments turned into a typical marital feud, followed by a long, cold, sleepless night. So early this morning she took a hot shower, dried herself off, and sat at the dresser before I had even rolled out of bed. We had morning coffee together, looking out the window at the fog.

“It’s getting late!” Seema said, and stood up. Jakie imitated her, clutched her overcoat’s sleeve in his mouth, and pulled her back. She frowned and said, “He should understand.” I said, “He wants you to stay a little longer.” Looking at Jakie, Seema sat down again in frustration. Jakie, too, sat down on the floor, close to the luggage as if guarding it. While his head laid down on his left leg, his erect ears frequently changed directions to every little noise, his copper-brown eyes scrutinizing each sound that came from the walls.

“He’s a poor little dog.” I said, looking down at Jakie.

“We’ve got our lives too, don’t we? And we are meant to live them.” said Seema.

“He doesn’t like to be without us. Isn’t it sweet?”

“Well, it’s rather irritating.”


“But what? He’s seven, don’t you know?” she blurted out, “It’s been seven years. It seems sometimes he is an unnecessary burden to us, to our lives! Pardon me for saying that, but it’s true- we are caged in this house all the time with him, can’t you see?” Seema stopped, shaking her head ruefully. Lifting her hands in an agitated gesture, she looked around as though she was cursing the walls. “We never took a moment to teach him that he’s got life without us too. But yes, it is my fault as much as it is yours.”

I remained silent, partly because that was the way I always acted in her presence, and partly because she was right. We never trained him when we had the time to do so. It was all fun, all the time, we were busy playing with him and carrying him wherever we went. He was just a mere puppy. But now what a pity!

I grabbed Seema’s hand. “Even if we leave fifteen minutes later, I’ll make sure we get there on time.” I put my arm around her, feeling the tender touch on the back of her neck. She looked up at the clock on the wall, which seemed to pace faster than it should. “We must leave now,” she said removing my hand.

But I took her in my arms and let my head rest on her shoulder for a while. Her perfume was enthralling, like some old Malbec wine. Had she not worn the overcoat over the shirt, I’d have started undressing her right away. The overcoat and the shirt inside were not a big deal though (It was way easier than removing the skin-fitted jeans in a public bathroom in the middle of a cold night). But after looking at the clock ticking unfavorably, I changed my mind. Her reddened lips parted to say something, but before she could say it, I laid my lips on hers.

It was a long kiss. I couldn’t remember the last time we locked our lips like this. Later, I sucked my lips in desperation of not getting enough before. Her hands slipped away through mine, and the moment she pulled herself back, Jakie began to whimper. A low squeaking, capable of sending depressing chills to freeze you on the spot. No wonder why I spent days and nights laying beside him in the bed or even on the floor sometimes after Covid-19 broke out in April and snatched my job under the excuse of a total lockdown that had just ended a few days ago. But now it was over, and life started all over again- only if you believe it had started; strangely I couldn’t believe it this time.

“I am sorry,” Seema said, peeking into Jakie’s rheumy eyes. She patted his head, “Poor dog!” and got up and walked to the door. Jakie stood up too. After glaring at her face, looking for a sign, his ears now dropped low in submission. His tongue stuck out, lolling, and a few beads of saliva falling from his mouth made a row on the brown carpeted floor as he went closer to rub his head against her knee. One could see how anxious he had become just by looking at the handbag hanging from her shoulder.

I’ve learned from experience it was better to avoid Jakie’s silent pleadings while leaving him behind than to pat him and whisper good words. We went out; he followed us to the door anyway. After succeeding in pushing his stuck out head inside with my knee, I slammed the door shut and locked it. Through the glass that also reflected my worn-out face and scattered greying hairs of my early thirties, the poor dog saw me. I went out carrying the bag, bravely.

Once in the car, I turned to face our house. It was painted white and sea- green. When we had planned the house nine years ago, Seema fancied to make the windows on the ground floor higher, but I objected, changed the design myself, and kept the windows low. Through one of them, I could make out a dark brown figure now tilting his head as the half-dried leaves of the myrtle tree in our small garden were blocking his view. He started scratching the panel where it was already ruined by his claws.

I lowered my eyes, rubbing lightly on the leather of the steering wheel with my thumb.

“The more you wait, the more he cries,” warned Seema.

“Alright,” I agreed, though my ears found a hint of a canine shriek dwelling in

the thin morning air.

We drove off through streets submerged in the crispy greyness of a late November morning.

I changed the direction of the mirror, remembering how Seema had kept the same hairstyle for all these years. But now it was tied behind in a low bun, making her look a bit different. Even so, an urge to touch her, to feel her exposed neck, struck my mind. While shifting the gears, I intendedly brushed Seema’s hand with mine, and finally, she regarded me with a smile. I slid my hand into her lap and handled the steering with the other. I grabbed her hand; slowly, it warmed our joined hands. That time I wanted to say something to her, my chest was swelling up with the prolonged thought. But then she continued scrolling down the over-brightened screen of her mobile phone, not smiling anymore. Right then, the high pitched howl of the dog came to me from behind; it was heart-wrenching.

This morning, the road was quite busy. I have always been cautious, even when it was altogether unoccupied, but today I couldn’t keep my eyes forward and was looking out of the window to catch the glimpse of the stray dogs; fortunately, there were many. In this part of the city where we lived were a hell of stray dogs. From our house, whichever direction you turn into, you would spot them in the packs, growling and eating the wasted food humans have left for them.

As I turned left to the main road, I noticed a starving lapdog sitting by the footpath. My eyes were captivated by the way he was licking the maggot wounds on his hairy back. All of a sudden, as soon as I looked back to the road, I jerked Seema’s hand away to hold the steering steady with both of my hands and pulled the brakes. The wheels screeched, and the car stopped.

Ahead of me, about a meter away, was a puppy, walking briskly on his tiny, scared paws towards his mother, who was anxiously waiting for him at the footpath. It was a wide lane. Many small and large vehicles were crossing it. But nobody cared to slow down to give the little one the necessary space and safety. No one really cares if their actions make someone feel insecure for their life. On the contrary, some take pleasure in it.

This malnourished black pup reminded me of the day we took Jakie home seven years ago. An uncontrolled scooter had bumped into him, giving him bruises, fractures, and cuts all over his body. He was unable to stand upright, and laid there alone to die on the road. When we found him, he was fighting for his life, breathing rapidly as if someone was pumping the air into his baby lungs- or, more precisely, taking it away. I lifted the blood-soaked body with my bare hands and took him to a veterinary clinic nearby. There, he was put under medical observation for 72 hours, and later, at home, we fed him with the nutritious diet a dog needs. When he was able to walk again, we inquired about him around the same place where we found him injured. We came to know that his mother had died in a fatal car accident, and all of her pups died of ailments or starvation in the winter nights except the one we had in our hands. We decided to adopt him, as we always wanted a pet, and raise him like our own child; so we did.

Looking at this frightened puppy, seized by the ruthless traffic yet trying to reach his mother only if he could, I had an impulse to open the car door, to go out and carry him to his mother, to ultimate safety. But I turned left to look at my wife. Her face showed an unusual indifference, and the way she had been complaining about the time all along the way I was left with nothing to say but to start the car right away and move on, leaving the puppy on his own poor luck.

I parked the car with Jakie and the puppy stuck in the traffic lingering in my head, so it took more time than necessary. The tightened muscles around Seema’s eyes proved it. I was panting as if I had been running for a long time, and it was funny because I had just gotten out of the car. We walked in; my heart kept racing.

The railway station looked outlandishly grey, and way less noisy than it was the last time I visited. We were scanned at the opening. Then throughout the way, I heard a lady announcing arrivals and departures of the trains, along with how the rules of travelling after the pandemic had been changed. Her voice, though young and gentle, surged my blood with anticipation each time she mentioned a name of a city or a station. But five minutes into our plodding toward the platform, passing a few passengers eager to give you the way just by looking at your masked face, I didn’t really hear the young lady say anything about Bangalore. That made me smile in my thoughts. Many trains were cancelled without any prior notification, and I thought how jolly Jakie would be if Seema returned home with me.

But what was projected on the screens over our heads erased my smile. The train to Bangalore was shown amongst the delayed ones, not the cancelled ones. Seema and I looked at it angrily. We inquired about the train at the ticket window and the double-chinned man inside first yawned and then laughed, explaining satirically why they hung up those wide screens and how much stress he would have if people stopped having good eyes. We just moved on.

“Let’s go and wait there,” I suggested signifying the wide-open glass door of the not-so-clean-looking waiting room. Seema’s face showed an expression of unwillingness, but there was no other choice.

The waiting room was warm and cozy, with twenty rows of steel benches; their metallic edges reflected the light of the thin sunlight that came in through the huge windows.

Seema just sat down at a bench a little away, talking to her sister or a friend or someone on the phone, swearing about the delayed trains with the jerks of her hand. The cold hesitant flames rose from my gut when I thought of sitting by her. She was still my wife after all. Anyway, I sat there, and she cut the call. “She’s also mad at the trains,” Seema said to me.

“Yes, she must be,” I nodded.

Shifting toward her, I put my arm around her and asked her to put her head on my shoulder if she could. She did. This pleasant warmth of closeness between us had always been soothing for me, but this time I just shivered. I asked her, “Should we have coffee? I feel cold.”

On the right was a canteen. I waved, and a waiter came to us. A queer, multi-colored muffler was tightly wrapped around his gaunt neck. Looking at it caused a painful fluttering in my stomach. He seemed in a hurry when he came to us to take the order. He was breathing rapidly when he said, “My boss gave me this beautiful muffler.” and stopped to breathe again before he went away. I wished he’d take more time to deliver the order so that I can be with Seema for a little more.

Outside, a blue train came on the first track but passed the station swiftly with an aerodynamic sound that lasted a few seconds. The next train on the other track came slower and stopped with an irritating noise of the wheels which somehow matched with that of my whimpering dog’s, and the passengers began to rush in. I felt jittery, so I preferred to look at Seema.

That moment in my arm, her body looked stunningly alluring. Her breast was firmly pressed against the thick cloth. I began to rub her shoulder, feeling her creamy skin through the layer of her overcoat. I was dying to tell her something, whisper some words to her, but then the waiter came with our coffees. We picked up the cups and, unlike my wife, I sipped slowly looking out of the window at the fog and tracks that had emptied again. The cup was warm and pleasant to hold.

“He must be whining madly by now, you know?” I said to Seema, just to break the silence.

“Well, I know. You think I don’t?” Seema snapped, pouring out her frustration at the delayed trains and other things on me.

“Of course you do! I didn’t mean that” I tried to explain.

“You said it as if I do not care.”

“You do care darling. With all my heart I know.”

“Don’t talk like this, at least not when I am going.”

“Okay. But, I didn’t mean what you are thinking. I mean – oh, I just don’t know what I meant – It’s just that you are going, I guess, I am losing my mind.” I shook my head.

“It’s simple! Just don’t think too much.” Putting down the empty cup on the table, she studied herself in the window-glass, rubbing her lips together. Looking at the pout of her lower lip, I fantasized about kissing her. But the very next thought that came to my mind forced me to reconsider my desires. I saw myself in the glass; I seemed sleepy and old. Rubbing my eyes with my index finger and thumb, I said, “It’s not easy to stop thinking,” as though complaining about something I don’t know.

“That’s the real problem. It’s crippling you. Good for Jakie too, if he learns to keep calm when left alone.”

“He’s too old to learn anything new.” Saying this, the image of his greying muzzle floated in front of me. The last time we took him to the vet for the regular check-up and vaccination, the thin, calm man said to me, “It’s too early for a dog to go grey. Aren’t you feeding him as suggested? Eggs? Sweet potatoes? Few drops of salmon oil in the food?” The doctor made a perplexed face, rubbed his stubble, and continued, “This dog of yours is suffering, I don’t know what”. Only later when I googled about dogs going grey in their early ages did I find out what the doctor couldn’t tell us, and what Jakie was really suffering from – the separation anxiety!

“As now I am going, you and the dog have plenty of time to learn anything, new or old,” said Seema, glaring down at her wrist. It was rude. So, like any other time, to not worsen an already dismal situation, I said nothing. I just swallowed down my thoughts and closed my eyes to forget them; most of the time it worked. Then she wanted us to go out. She said it was already too much waiting, and the coffee made it even worse. I stood up and lifted the bag.

Passing through a lighted passage with slightly dirty tiles under our creaking shoes, we took an overpass. The tracks below us went in both directions as far as my eyes could see and all of them were empty, but I could hear the train whistle coming over from the west. While descending the steps on the other side, I heard the lady mentioning ‘Bangalore’ twice or perhaps thrice. Few people walking wearily next to us just broke away from their yawning and made a quick leap towards platform number 7 when the lady finished saying the train to Bangalore had just arrived and will be departing at 9:40- 5 minutes from then.

People almost ran. Seema was jumpy. Contrary to her, it turned my legs into pillars of cold steel. She wanted me to walk at least as fast as others. But without a thought, I grabbed her arm and drew her back to me. Staring deeper into her widened eyes as if searching, the words came out of my mouth, “He’s gonna miss you a lot.” That’s all I could manage to say. Raising her brows, she said, “You’ll take care of him.” Noticing that her lips had dried up, I craved to moisten them with mine. “I’ll miss him too,” she said and walked away. I stared at her moving shoulder, the bun, and the overcoat, all disappearing in the wave of the crowd.

With a heavy bag in my hand, I jostled my way through. My eyes tried to catch a glimpse of her. Soon I found myself panting. The screeching noise of hundreds of shoes agitated my ears. No longer did I want to listen to the soft voice of the lady making announcements. I heard the exasperated sound coming out from my nostrils while struggling with the broad-shouldered, taller people. The smell of my own sweat was suffocating. Finally, I was spewed out by the crowd onto the floor. With my palms on the ground, I was breathing almost like a dog. There at the edge of the platform, I found Seema. I made my final tread toward her. The bag in my hand was getting heavier and heavier with every step further.

“I thought I had to leave without the bag!” she said jokingly. I went inside the car after her and found that it was half-empty. With the altered regulations, passengers had to sit leaving one seat between them vacant. So, they marked those seats with a red cross. I felt bad looking at this bloody, obscene sign. The train gave a loud signal of departure.

“I must go,” I said.

“I’ll call you when I am in Bangalore. I don’t know when. It’s already too late,” she replied. I exhaled from the bottom of my heavy heart. She was finally going and was happy. I gave her a goodbye kiss on her cheek.

As I stepped out of the train, it began to move. For a moment I thought I was drifting backwards with the platform, but I realized that was a lie as soon as I looked away from the train at the faint sun above. Seema came to the side to wave at me, smiling ear to ear. I waved back but failed to return the smile. It was strange. All along the way, from the moment we left home while driving leisurely and struggling with the crowd, at last, I waited for something really painful to occur right in the center of my chest, at least at this very moment when the train would leave, but to my shock, nothing really happened. Even before she was out of my sight I turned and began to walk out of the station.

The glow of the sun on the brown tiles of the platform and my skin was soothing to my eyes as it was deliberately sweeping out all sorts of coldness. I stopped to see through the panel of the waiting room. It was full of passengers, strolling here and there, worried about their baggage. At the other door, a crabby old man was sweeping the floor each time someone stepped onto it with dirty shoes. On the right, a mother was trying to breastfeed her crying child. There was a man at the same bench where I had been sitting. He had held his head in between his palms. My eyes were glued to what was going on in the waiting room. Hard to believe we were there a few minutes ago. As if it was all a dream and now I was woken up by a hard push or a blinding light or a deafening sound like a train siren.

A stout man went past me, shoving my shoulder. I stumbled, almost fell to the ground. Getting upright, I walked on, my eyes on the floor until I was out of the mechanical door. I was desperate to go out, far, far away from all the stone-faced people and the hubbub of the station.


On my way back I bought a pack of cigarettes. An unusual craving for something serious had been boiling up in my stomach ever since I left the station, not to mention it had been several months since I smoked anything.

I drove smoking and staring at the stretched ahead road I had driven many times in my life, knowing it was the same road with the same hoardings, and the buildings on both the sides and the empty parks and the shops. Knowing that only Seema and Jakie were not with me, I felt the emptiness coming back to me. I smoked and saw the fog slowly lifting. One could make out the upper windows of the tall buildings and clearly read the signposts on every turn, which were helpful if you were new in the city. The sun parting through the leaves of trees that grew on the sides was much clearer now.

I slowed down where I saw the puppy in the morning. My eyes examined the road and the footpath and beyond, but found nothing. My heart was relieved when I saw no signs of a casualty. Hoping that the pup must be happy somewhere playing with its own shadow, I just moved on.


I knew Jakie would turn up in the window any moment hearing the noise of the car engine while I parked it – I was accustomed to this behaviour of him – but he didn’t, which was beyond my belief. I unlocked the door and walked into the house, and my eyes started looking for Jakie on instinct, but he was nowhere to be seen. What they found instead was damn disturbing.

All the things that were once kept safe: the diary mentioning household expenditure, the pay-bills of water and electricity, the receipts of car loan instalments, the newspaper cuttings of advertisements of properties, the resume that I prospected to mail to the IT companies probably by the end of this month or next –I hadn’t decided upon it– and the other important papers such as the medical report from a gastrologist who had rather frankly asked me if I was getting enough sleep or not. Next to these were cushions, table cloth, dog food, the hiking shoes we bought for a future adventure, and the gifted woolen gloves Seema had intentionally left behind on the couch as it was warm where she was going to. All these things were either torn apart or chewed up in frustration and scattered about the floor as though the remnants left after a flood had dismantled a once-tidy house.

I had to rearrange it, now or later. I chose later. First I wanted to see where Jakie was and if he was alright. I found him sitting in a corner beside the couch, trying to make himself so compact that he’d not be seen. Almost hidden, he looked as though a different dog. To my shock, he didn’t even get up to greet me nor did his tail show any movements except his eyes, which followed my feet as I proceeded toward him, looking at what he had done to the house.

I put my hand on his head. He shuddered away, as if unknown to my touch. For a moment, anger aroused in me, but I suppressed it. Sitting on the couch and staring at the chaos was a much better idea, I thought. Looking pitifully at Jakie, who in his curled-up position seemed sick, I puffed the cigarette smoke. Then I got up, sauntered across the house, and looked at my reflection in the mirror over the sink while washing my hands and face and thought of having a coffee while watching the TV. It was a stupid idea, I realized. My eyes fell upon the only photograph of my mother hanging on the wall above the couch. The dust made it look old and unclear. Then, I resolved to have a good sleep.

Standing in the doorway, I looked at the quietness of the room; at the slow movement of the clock; at the light pink stillness of the bedsheet and then finally outside the window at the dying myrtle tree. I sat down on the bed heavily. The surface felt warm, as the sun had been there all the time I was out of the house, but I knew how cold it was below that. I caressed the bedsheet and I closed my eyes. That’s how the process of forgetting takes off.

Jakie came into the room himself, walking limply, considering my face for a moment as if I was an intruder. His questioning eyes were somehow penetrating mine. Then he rubbed his left ear on my knee as if he finally recognized me. “Oh, poor Jakie!” I patted him and let go of myself; my torso fell onto the bed.

Jakie came up on the bed, sniffed my nose and mouth, and sat down, carefully placing his muzzle on my chest. I let my fingers run through the fur below his ears, where he liked it the most. He moved closer, cuddling. The warmth came between us. I shut my eyes tight, then opened them and stared at the white ceiling and the fan until it all blurred and hot fluid came down my cheeks. “It’s fucking too much,” I said, “We have to get out of this, Jakie. It’s fucking too much.”

Only So Much

Dad calls my name 
in the chaos of unlit morning,
says, Get up. 

He is in a starched shirt and tie, shaved,
small piece of reddened tissue on his chin. 
Mom left yesterday, Sunday.  

Dad has no choice but to take me with him  
to Queens where he manufactures fruit drinks,  
liquid synthetics that burn the back of throats.  

He tells me on the train that Mom has a bad heart— 
an orange- and grape-flavored reformulation, 
a fact like new weather.  

The air outside the plant is dense 
with sweet rot and acrid chemicals; 
the ground by the door seethes: cockroaches.  

I stop, step back. Dad walks through them,  
turns, looks at me, waits. I hold up my arms— 
but on this morning we commuted 

on a double-decker train and city busses 
and arrived at Dad’s refusal 
to lift me. 

I ask once more but know 
I will do it, nearly wetting my tights.
Though I am only five, I understand.

The truth will repeat itself
with every hospital stay:
there is only so much he can do without her.

Waking at Camp

The sun drills through the orange shell of my sleeping-bag, illuminating the camp scenes on its worn flannel lining. Despite a sharp rock in my back, I think, for a flash, that I am at home where my unzipped bag is my quilt. I hang on to that moment because I know, once I emerge from my cocoon, I will have to shoulder that heavy pack. But, cold as the night was, my bag’s now stuffy, so I stick my head out and catch my breath. I am ten years old and waking twenty feet from the edge of a rocky outcrop overlooking … 

Nothingness. Vast, then dropping, like a lost bowl, to tiny trees that slope to the edge of the newly distant lake. Another mountain rises behind, backed by thin clouds grazing a pale blue sky. I drink this moment as if I will never drink again.

They wake. My top-heavy pack looms over my head. The same leaders who volunteer to remove things from the fairylike girl with the blond braids and weak smile’s pack, who unbidden lighten her load every half mile, refuse to even check mine. It doesn’t matter. O.K., it does, but it doesn’t more because I can’t do anything about it; I signed up for this and I don’t know how lucky I am. 

I don’t know that such a thing would be impossible, illegal today – sending a group of girls, strangers, all hovering around age ten, up a mountain, for four days, with two guides who couldn’t have been more than seventeen, if that. We see no other hikers, and (in 1976) there is no way to contact anyone should something go wrong. On the other hand, nothing does. Do we sleep in tents? No! We are exposed. But do Grizzlies raid our supplies, cougars attack us? Also no. Besides, the camp itself does not have tents.

The week before, when (after a welcome speech featuring a group vow to always accompany your campmate to the toilet in the dark) Julie and I set up our campsite, it was tarps on the ground, duffels against a tree. Julie squared our tarps to right angles and—despite my very scientific protestations—aerosoled a perimeter of Raid around them. I slept with my arms overhead and—despite Julie’s Raid—woke to mosquito bites on bites, my arms swollen in a landscape of red rubbery bumps, no spot untouched (so grotesque that bragging rights outweighed the itch). My tarp was an old blue shower curtain, Julie’s a proper green drop cloth. The idea was, if it rained you’d tie a rope between two trees, then use one camper’s tarp as a tent and the other for ground cover. We agreed that Julie’s tarp—being larger and bendier, (and, I realize now, more fashionable)—would be the tent, but it never rained which was good, because I took my shower curtain with me, up the mountain.

Our leaders provided backpacks and, after we filled them with our own stuff, distributed mess kits, snakebite kits, camp stoves, and food amongst us. Tall for my age, I received an adult pack. Also, while my brother had taught me to stuff my sleeping-bag in a tiny sack that, when filled with day clothes, became a pillow, the other girls brought actual pillows which (as you know) are both space-consuming and light. 

Was this a Gold Award project? Did our leaders, long-legged and confident, scoff at the map. “We can make this. Easy”? Despite our lack of uniforms, badges, or cookies, this was a Girl Scout Camp. To their credit, our leaders honored the motto: Be Prepared. The reconstituted food was less disgusting everyday, and there was enough of it. Still, while that blond girl was definitely a weakling, why, when I begged them to check my pack’s weight, wouldn’t they just shut me up by humoring me?

The injustice stamped that particular bend in the river (where, filling our canteens, I shared my brother’s theory that animals pee upstream) in my mind, destining me to recall forever the third girl’s laughter. It was the one time we dug a hole for a toilet and she reported that it was now full of bees. (Yellow jackets dancing over counselor-created dog-do: an incongruously suburban scene). Last in line, I went behind a bush. 

Was there a fourth girl? I’m not sure. The hike was arduous. No one else wanted to sing (and, despite my repertoire of showtunes, I was banned from singing solo), but it still beat the disappointing drama club and wildlife sessions starring tabby cats at the main camp. Our leaders marched ahead, worried (legitimately) that we’d never make campsite before dark. We straggled behind, not talking (which cannot be right, when did I ever not talk?) because we were separated by pace. Aside from ledge-night, when the other two girls performed the baby-brushing-her-teeth skit, there was no time for anything but hiking, eating, and sleeping. 

But I loved it. It was the mountains, the wilderness, even if we couldn’t stop to look at it, even if we never saw more than a chipmunk, and I didn’t make friends with the other girls, even if no one liked me, even if they wished I wasn’t there (but then who would have carried the excess in my pack?). I was as happy on my own as I would later be in cafes the world over, and waking up thinking I was home, only to be transported to that breathtaking ledge, remains one of my favorite memories.

Five days later I return.  Re-squaring my tarp, Julie tells me that every morning, for one glorious moment before opening her eyes, she thinks she’s home. I say next week we’ll believe we’re at camp, and we giggle as if I’d never left her to wake strangers for help locating a bathroom in the night woods. I don’t know what happened to Julie, but this is the second time she’s popped up in my writing, which is funny because we weren’t that close. Or maybe we were and I didn’t notice, which makes me wonder what else I’ve missed while off hiking on my own.


I am from a mother who always gives 
and a father who never quits. I am from grandparents 
as rooted in New Mexico as the mountains and valleys.
I am from the state of red and yellow, 
having suffered the serious soldiers 
of Spain. I am from the tribes of strength and craft, 
dignity and pride.  I am breathing quietly in the corner of the room.
I am trying to be invisible.
I am speaking softly at the party,
I am repeating myself because no one can hear me.
I am screaming on this page, praying to be heard. 

NOVUS Literary and
Arts Journal
Lebanon, TN