Short Story: SUN DRIED

SUN DRIED
by Edna Ferber (1885-1968)

The following story is reprinted from Buttered Side Down. Edna Ferber. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1912.



There come those times in the life of every woman when she feels that she must wash her hair at once. And then she does it. The feeling may come upon her suddenly, without warning, at any hour of the day or night; or its approach may be slow and insidious, so that the victim does not at first realize what it is that fills her with that sensation of unrest. But once in the clutches of the idea she knows no happiness, no peace, until she has donned a kimono, gathered up two bath towels, a spray, and the green soap, and she breathes again only when, head dripping, she makes for the back yard, the sitting-room radiator, or the side porch (depending on her place of residence, and the time of year).

Mary Louise was seized with the feeling at ten o'clock on a joyous June morning. She tried to fight it off because she had got to that stage in the construction of her story where her hero was beginning to talk and act a little more like a real live man, and a little less like a clothing store dummy. (By the way, they don't seem to be using those pink-and-white, black-mustachioed figures any more. Another good simile gone.)

Mary Louise had been battling with that hero for a week. He wouldn't make love to the heroine. In vain had Mary Louise striven to instill red blood into his watery veins. He and the beauteous heroine were as far apart as they had been on Page One of the typewritten manuscript. Mary Louise was developing nerves over him. She had bitten her finger nails, and twisted her hair into corkscrews over him. She had risen every morning at the chaste hour of seven, breakfasted hurriedly, tidied the tiny two-room apartment, and sat down in the unromantic morning light to wrestle with her stick of a hero. She had made her heroine a creature of grace, wit, and loveliness, but thus far the hero had not once clasped her to him fiercely, or pressed his lips to her hair, her eyes, her cheeks. Nay (as the story-writers would put it), he hadn't even devoured her with his gaze.

This morning, however, he had begun to show some signs of life. He was developing possibilities. Whereupon, at this critical stage in the story-writing game, the hair-washing mania seized Mary Louise. She tried to dismiss the idea. She pushed it out of her mind, and slammed the door. It only popped in again. Her fingers wandered to her hair. Her eyes wandered to the June sunshine outside. The hero was left poised, arms outstretched, and unquenchable love-light burning in his eyes, while Mary Louise mused, thus:

"It certainly feels sticky. It's been six weeks, at least. And I could sit here-by the window--in the sun--and dry it----"

With a jerk she brought her straying fingers away from her hair, and her wandering eyes away from the sunshine, and her runaway thoughts back to the typewritten page. For three minutes the snap of the little disks crackled through the stillness of the tiny apartment. Then, suddenly, as though succumbing to an irresistible force, Mary Louise rose, walked across the room (a matter of six steps), removing hairpins as she went, and shoved aside the screen which hid the stationary wash-bowl by day.

Mary Louise turned on a faucet and held her finger under it, while an agonized expression of doubt and suspense overspread her features. Slowly the look of suspense gave way to a smile of beatific content. A sigh--deep, soul-filling, satisfied--welled up from Mary Louise's breast. The water was hot.

Half an hour later, head swathed turban fashion in a towel, Mary Louise strolled over to the window. Then she stopped, aghast. In that half hour the sun had slipped just around the corner, and was now beating brightly and uselessly against the brick wall a few inches away. Slowly Mary Louise unwound the towel, bent double in the contortionistic attitude that women assume on such occasions, and watched with melancholy eyes while the drops trickled down to the ends of her hair, and fell, unsunned, to the floor.

"If only," thought Mary Louise, bitterly, "there was such a thing as a back yard in this city--a back yard where I could squat on the grass, in the sunshine and the breeze-- Maybe there is. I'll ask the janitor."

She bound her hair in the turban again, and opened the door. At the far end of the long, dim hallway Charlie, the janitor, was doing something to the floor with a mop and a great deal of sloppy water, whistling the while with a shrill abandon that had announced his presence to Mary Louise.

"Oh, Charlie!" called Mary Louise. "Charlee! Can you come here just a minute?"

"You bet!" answered Charlie, with the accent on the you; and came.

"Charlie, is there a back yard, or something, where the sun is, you know--some nice, grassy place where I can sit, and dry my hair, and let the breezes blow it?"

"Back yard!" grinned Charlie. "I guess you're new to N' York, all right, with ground costin' a million or so a foot. Not much they ain't no back yard, unless you'd give that name to an ash-barrel, and a dump heap or so, and a crop of tin cans. I wouldn't invite a goat to set in it."

Disappointment curved Mary Louise's mouth. It was a lovely enough mouth at any time, but when it curved in disappointment--well, janitors are but human, after all.

"Tell you what, though," said Charlie. "I'll let you up on the roof. It ain't long on grassy spots up there, but say, breeze! Like a summer resort. On a clear day you can see way over 's far 's Eight' Avenoo. Only for the love of Mike don't blab it to the other women folks in the buildin', or I'll have the whole works of 'em usin' the roof for a general sun, massage, an' beauty parlor. Come on."

"I'll never breathe it to a soul," promised Mary Louise, solemnly. "Oh, wait a minute."

She turned back into her room, appearing again in a moment with something green in her hand.

"What's that?" asked Charlie, suspiciously.

Mary Louise, speeding down the narrow hallway after Charlie, blushed a little. "It--it's parsley," she faltered.

"Parsley!" exploded Charlie. "Well, what the----"

"Well, you see. I'm from the country," explained Mary Louise, "and in the country, at this time of year, when you dry your hair in the back yard, you get the most wonderful scent of green and growing things--not only of flowers, you know, but of the new things just coming up in the vegetable garden, and--and--well, this parsley happens to be the only really gardeny thing I have, so I thought I'd bring it along and sniff it once in a while, and make believe it's the country, up there on the roof."

Half-way up the perilous little flight of stairs that led to the roof, Charlie, the janitor, turned to gaze down at Mary Louise, who was just behind, and keeping fearfully out of the way of Charlie's heels.

"Wimmin," observed Charlie, the janitor, "is nothin' but little girls in long skirts, and their hair done up."

"I know it," giggled Mary Louise, and sprang up on the roof, looking, with her towel-swathed head, like a lady Aladdin leaping from her underground grotto.

The two stood there a moment, looking up at the blue sky, and all about at the June sunshine.

"If you go up high enough," observed Mary Louise, "the sunshine is almost the same as it is in the country, isn't it?"

"I shouldn't wonder," said Charlie, "though Calvary cemetery is about as near's I'll ever get to the country. Say, you can set here on this soap box and let your feet hang down. The last janitor's wife used to hang her washin' up here, I guess. I'll leave this door open, see?"

"You're so kind," smiled Mary Louise.

"Kin you blame me?" retorted the gallant Charles. And vanished.

Mary Louise, perched on the soap box, unwound her turban, draped the damp towel over her shoulders, and shook out the wet masses of her hair. Now the average girl shaking out the wet masses of her hair looks like a drowned rat. But Nature had been kind to Mary Louise. She had given her hair that curled in little ringlets when wet, and that waved in all the right places when dry.

Just now it hung in damp, shining strands on either side of her face, so that she looked most remarkably like one of those oval-faced, great-eyed, red-lipped women that the old Italian artists were so fond of painting.

Below her, blazing in the sun, lay the great stone and iron city. Mary Louise shook out her hair idly, with one hand, sniffed her parsley, shut her eyes, threw back her head, and began to sing, beating time with her heel against the soap box, and forgetting all about the letter that had come that morning, stating that it was not from any lack of merit, etc. She sang, and sniffed her parsley, and waggled her hair in the breeze, and beat time, idly, with the heel of her little boot, when----

"Holy Cats!" exclaimed a man's voice. "What is this, anyway? A Coney Island concession gone wrong?"

Mary Louise's eyes unclosed in a flash, and Mary Louise gazed upon an irate-looking, youngish man, who wore shabby slippers, and no collar with a full dress air.

"I presume that you are the janitor's beautiful daughter," growled the collarless man.

"Well, not precisely," answered Mary Louise, sweetly. "Are you the scrub-lady's stalwart son?"

"Ha!" exploded the man. "But then, all women look alike with their hair down. I ask your pardon, though."

"Not at all," replied Mary Louise. "For that matter, all men look like picked chickens with their collars off."

At that the collarless man, who until now had been standing on the top step that led up to the roof, came slowly forward, stepped languidly over a skylight or two, draped his handkerchief over a convenient chimney and sat down, hugging his long, lean legs to him.

"Nice up here, isn't it?" he remarked.

"It was," said Mary Louise.

"Ha!" exploded he, again. Then, "Where's your mirror?" he demanded.

"Mirror?" echoed Mary Louise.

"Certainly. You have the hair, the comb, the attitude, and the general Lorelei effect. Also your singing lured me to your shores."

"You didn't look lured," retorted Mary Louise. "You looked lurid."

"What's that stuff in your hand?" next demanded he. He really was a most astonishingly rude young man.

"Parsley."

"Parsley!" shouted he, much as Charlie had done. "Well, what the----"

"Back home," elucidated Mary Louise once more, patiently, "after you've washed your hair you dry it in the back yard, sitting on the grass, in the sunshine and the breeze. And the garden smells come to you--the nasturtiums, and the pansies, and the geraniums, you know, and even that clean grass smell, and the pungent vegetable odor, and there are ants, and bees, and butterflies----"

"Go on," urged the young man, eagerly.

"And Mrs. Next Door comes out to hang up a few stockings, and a jabot or so, and a couple of baby dresses that she has just rubbed through, and she calls out to you:

"`Washed your hair?'

"`Yes,' you say. `It was something awful, and I wanted it nice for Tuesday night. But I suppose I won't be able to do a thing with it.'

"And then Mrs. Next Door stands there a minute on the clothes-reel platform, with the wind whipping her skirts about her, and the fresh smell of the growing things coming to her. And suddenly she says: `I guess I'll wash mine too, while the baby's asleep.'"

The collarless young man rose from his chimney, picked up his handkerchief, and moved to the chimney just next to Mary Louise's soap box.

"Live here?" he asked, in his impolite way.

"If I did not, do you think that I would choose this as the one spot in all New York in which to dry my hair?"

"When I said, `Live here,' I didn't mean just that. I meant who are you, and why are you here, and where do you come from, and do you sign your real name to your stuff, or use a nom de plume?"

"Why--how did you know?" gasped Mary Louise.

"Give me five minutes more," grinned the keen-eyed young man, "and I'll tell you what make your typewriter is, and where the last rejection slip came from."

"Oh!" said Mary Louise again. "Then you are the scrub-lady's stalwart son, and you've been ransacking my waste-basket."

Quite unheeding, the collarless man went on, "And so you thought you could write, and you came on to New York (you know one doesn't just travel to New York, or ride to it, or come to it; one `comes on' to New York), and now you're not so sure about the writing, h'm? And back home what did you do?"

"Back home I taught school--and hated it. But I kept on teaching until I'd saved five hundred dollars. Every other school ma'am in the world teaches until she has saved five hundred dollars, and then she packs two suit-cases, and goes to Europe from June until September. But I saved my five hundred for New York. I've been here six months now, and the five hundred has shrunk to almost nothing, and if I don't break into the magazines pretty soon----"

"Then?"

"Then," said Mary Louise, with a quaver in her voice, "I'll have to go back and teach thirty-seven young devils that six times five is thirty, put down the naught and carry six, and that the French are a gay people, fond of dancing and light wines. But I'll scrimp on everything from hairpins to shoes, and back again, including pretty collars, and gloves, and hats, until I've saved up another five hundred, and then I'll try it all over again, because I--can--write."

From the depths of one capacious pocket the inquiring man took a small black pipe, from another a bag of tobacco, from another a match. The long, deft fingers made a brief task of it.

"I didn't ask you," he said, after the first puff, "because I could see that you weren't the fool kind that objects." Then, with amazing suddenness, "Know any of the editors?"

"Know them!" cried Mary Louise. "Know them! If camping on their doorsteps, and haunting the office buildings, and cajoling, and fighting with secretaries and office boys, and assistants and things constitutes knowing them, then we're chums."

"What makes you think you can write?" sneered the thin man.

Mary Louise gathered up her brush, and comb, and towel, and parsley, and jumped off the soap box. She pointed belligerently at her tormentor with the hand that held the brush.

"Being the scrub-lady's stalwart son, you wouldn't understand. But I can write. I sha'n't go under. I'm going to make this town count me in as the four million and oneth. Sometimes I get so tired of being nobody at all, with not even enough cleverness in me to wrest a living from this big city, that I long to stand out at the edge of the curbing, and take off my hat, and wave it, and shout, `Say, you four million uncaring people, I'm Mary Louise Moss, from Escanaba, Michigan, and I like your town, and I want to stay here. Won't you please pay some slight attention to me. No one knows I'm here except myself, and the rent collector.'"

"And I," put in the rude young man.

"O, you," sneered Mary Louise, equally rude, "you don't count."

The collarless young man in the shabby slippers smiled a curious little twisted smile. "You never can tell," he grinned, "I might." Then, quite suddenly, he stood up, knocked the ash out of his pipe, and came over to Mary Louise, who was preparing to descend the steep little flight of stairs.

"Look here, Mary Louise Moss, from Escanaba, Michigan, you stop trying to write the slop you're writing now. Stop it. Drop the love tales that are like the stuff that everybody else writes. Stop trying to write about New York. You don't know anything about it. Listen. You get back to work, and write about Mrs. Next Door, and the hair-washing, and the vegetable garden, and bees, and the back yard, understand? You write the way you talked to me, and then you send your stuff in to Cecil Reeves."

"Reeves!" mocked Mary Louise. "Cecil Reeves, of The Earth? He wouldn't dream of looking at my stuff. And anyway, it really isn't your affair." And began to descend the stairs.

"Well, you know you brought me up here, kicking with your heels, and singing at the top of your voice. I couldn't work. So it's really your fault." Then, just as Mary Louise had almost disappeared down the stairway he put his last astonishing question.

"How often do you wash your hair?" he demanded.

"Well, back home," confessed Mary Louise, "every six weeks or so was enough, but----"

"Not here," put in the rude young man, briskly. "Never. That's all very well for the country, but it won't do in the city. Once a week, at least, and on the roof. Cleanliness demands it."

"But if I'm going back to the country," replied Mary Louise, "it won't be necessary."

"But you're not," calmly said the collarless young man, just as Mary Louise vanished from sight.

Down at the other end of the hallway on Mary Louise's floor Charlie, the janitor, was doing something to the windows now, with a rag, and a pail of water.

"Get it dry?" he called out, sociably.

"Yes, thank you," answered Mary Louise, and turned to enter her own little apartment. Then, hesitatingly, she came back to Charlie's window.

"There--there was a man up there--a very tall, very thin, very rude, very--that is, rather nice youngish oldish man, in slippers, and no collar. I wonder----"

"Oh, him!" snorted Charlie. "He don't show himself onct in a blue moon. None of the other tenants knows he's up there. Has the whole top floor to himself, and shuts himself up there for weeks at a time, writin' books, or some such truck. That guy, he owns the building."

"Owns the building!" said Mary Louise, faintly. "Why he looked--he looked----"

"Sure," grinned Charlie. "That's him. Name's Reeves--Cecil Reeves. Say, ain't that a divil of a name?"

For more work by Edna Ferber, please check the Edna Ferber Short Story Index .

For more short stories: shortstoryarchive.com

Slideshow of Draw Mo' Entries

The Machine Stops

The Machine Stops is a short science fiction story. It describes a world in which almost all humans have lost the ability to live on the surface of the Earth. Each individual lives in isolation in a 'cell', with all bodily and spiritual needs met by the omnipotent, global Machine. Most humans welcome this development, as they are skeptical and fearful of first-hand experience. People forget that humans created the Machine, and treat it as a mystical entity whose needs supersede their own. Those who do not accept the deity of the Machine are viewed as 'unmechanical' and are threatened with "Homelessness". Eventually, the Machine apocalyptically collapses, and the civilization of the Machine comes to an end. (Wikipedia)





The Machine Stops
from manybooks.net

Author E.M. Forster
Published 1909
Word count 12,173




I

THE AIR-SHIP

Imagine, if you can, a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee. It is lighted neither by window nor by lamp, yet it is filled with a soft radiance. There are no apertures for ventilation, yet the air is fresh. There are no musical instruments, and yet, at the moment that my meditation opens, this room is throbbing with melodious sounds. An armchair is in the centre, by its side a reading-desk--that is all the furniture. And in the armchair there sits a swaddled lump of flesh--a woman, about five feet high, with a face as white as a fungus. It is to her that the little room belongs.

An electric bell rang.

The woman touched a switch and the music was silent.

"I suppose I must see who it is", she thought, and set her chair in motion. The chair, like the music, was worked by machinery and it rolled her to the other side of the room where the bell still rang importunately.

"Who is it?" she called. Her voice was irritable, for she had been interrupted often since the music began. She knew several thousand people, in certain directions human intercourse had advanced enormously.

But when she listened into the receiver, her white face wrinkled into smiles, and she said:

"Very well. Let us talk, I will isolate myself. I do not expect anything important will happen for the next five minutes--for I can give you fully five minutes, Kuno. Then I must deliver my lecture on 'Music during the Australian Period'."

She touched the isolation knob, so that no one else could speak to her. Then she touched the lighting apparatus, and the little room was plunged into darkness.

"Be quick!" She called, her irritation returning. "Be quick, Kuno; here I am in the dark wasting my time."

But it was fully fifteen seconds before the round plate that she held in her hands began to glow. A faint blue light shot across it, darkening to purple, and presently she could see the image of her son, who lived on the other side of the earth, and he could see her.

"Kuno, how slow you are."

He smiled gravely.

"I really believe you enjoy dawdling."

"I have called you before, mother, but you were always busy or isolated. I have something particular to say."

"What is it, dearest boy? Be quick. Why could you not send it by pneumatic post?"

"Because I prefer saying such a thing. I want--"

"Well?"

"I want you to come and see me."

Vashti watched his face in the blue plate.

"But I can see you!" she exclaimed. "What more do you want?"

"I want to see you not through the Machine," said Kuno. "I want to speak to you not through the wearisome Machine."

"Oh, hush!" said his mother, vaguely shocked. "You mustn't say anything against the Machine."

"Why not?"

"One mustn't."

"You talk as if a god had made the Machine," cried the other. "I believe that you pray to it when you are unhappy. Men made it, do not forget that. Great men, but men. The Machine is much, but it is not everything. I see something like you in this plate, but I do not see you. I hear something like you through this telephone, but I do not hear you. That is why I want you to come. Pay me a visit, so that we can meet face to face, and talk about the hopes that are in my mind."

She replied that she could scarcely spare the time for a visit.

"The air-ship barely takes two days to fly between me and you."

"I dislike air-ships."

"Why?"

"I dislike seeing the horrible brown earth, and the sea, and the stars when it is dark. I get no ideas in an air-ship."

"I do not get them anywhere else."

"What kind of ideas can the air give you?"

He paused for an instant.

"Do you not know four big stars that form an oblong, and three stars close together in the middle of the oblong, and hanging from these stars, three other stars?"

"No, I do not. I dislike the stars. But did they give you an idea? How interesting; tell me."

"I had an idea that they were like a man."

"I do not understand."

"The four big stars are the man's shoulders and his knees.

The three stars in the middle are like the belts that men wore once, and the three stars hanging are like a sword."

"A sword?;"

"Men carried swords about with them, to kill animals and other men."

"It does not strike me as a very good idea, but it is certainly original. When did it come to you first?"

"In the air-ship---" He broke off, and she fancied that he looked sad. She could not be sure, for the Machine did not transmit nuances of expression. It only gave a general idea of people--an idea that was good enough for all practical purposes, Vashti thought. The imponderable bloom, declared by a discredited philosophy to be the actual essence of intercourse, was rightly ignored by the Machine, just as the imponderable bloom of the grape was ignored by the manufacturers of artificial fruit. Something "good enough" had long since been accepted by our race.

"The truth is," he continued, "that I want to see these stars again. They are curious stars. I want to see them not from the air-ship, but from the surface of the earth, as our ancestors did, thousands of years ago. I want to visit the surface of the earth."

She was shocked again.

"Mother, you must come, if only to explain to me what is the harm of visiting the surface of the earth."

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She Wants To Be Small

Last year, the little one was completely enraptured by the story Thumbelina. I was asked to read it over and over again. If I had a huge ego, I'd say it was my storytelling skills that kept the request coming. The reality is that it wasn't my delivery...it was the illustrations that kept the little one coming back for more.

One day I unwittingly convinced the wee one that shrinking down to the size of Thumbelina was possible. It was all done in jest but the wee one believed me. Needless to say, feelings were hurt and a whole lot of internal growth happened to each of us.

Still, we both wish it was possible to shrink down so small. Alice did it with the aid of medication but we choose to stay drug free so we'll have to find another way.

Ah, well, without further ado...


THE STORY OF THUMBELINA
by Grimm



Once upon a time . . . there lived a woman who had no children. She dreamed of having a little girl, but time went by, and her dream never came true.

She then went to visit a witch, who gave her a magic grain of barley. She planted it in a flowerpot. And the very next day, the grain had turned into a lovely flower, rather like a tulip. The woman softly kissed its half-shut petals. And as though by magic, the flower opened in full blossom. Inside sat a tiny girl, no bigger than a thumb. The woman called her Thumbelina. For a bed she had a walnut shell, violet petals for her mattress and a rose petal blanket. In the daytime, she played in a tulip petal boat, floating on a plate of water. Using two horsehairs as oars, Thumbelina sailed around her little lake, singing and singing in a gentle sweet voice.

Then one night, as she lay fast asleep in her walnut shell, a large frog hopped through a hole in the windowpane. As she gazed down at Thumbelina, she said to herself: "How pretty she is! She'd make the perfect bride for my own dear son!"

She picked up Thumbelina, walnut shell and all, and hopped into the garden. Nobody saw her go. Back at the pond, her fat ugly son, who always did as mother told him, was pleased with her choice. But mother frog was afraid that her pretty prisoner might run away. So she carried Thumbelina out to a water lily leaf in the middle of the pond.

"She can never escape us now," said the frog to her son.

"And we have plenty of time to prepare a new home for you and your bride." Thumbelina was left all alone. She felt so desperate. She knew she would never be able to escape the fate that awaited her with the two horrid fat frogs. All she could do was cry her eyes out. However, one or two minnows who had been enjoying the shade below the water lily leaf, had overheard the two frogs talking, and the little girl's bitter sobs. They decided to do something about it. So they nibbled away at the lily stem till it broke and drifted away in the weak current. A dancing butterfly had an idea: "Throw me the end of your belt! I'll help you to move a little faster!" Thumbelina gratefully did so, and the leaf soon floated away from the frog pond.

But other dangers lay ahead. A large beetle snatched Thumbelina with his strong feet and took her away to his home at the top of a leafy tree.

"Isn't she pretty?" he said to his friends. But they pointed out that she was far too different. So the beetle took her down the tree and set her free.

It was summertime, and Thumbelina wandered all by herself amongst the flowers and through the long grass. She had pollen for her meals and drank the dew. Then the rainy season came, bringing nasty weather. The poor child found it hard to find food and shelter. When winter set in, she suffered from the cold and felt terrible pangs of hunger.

One day, as Thumbelina roamed helplessly over the bare meadows, she met a large spider that promised to help her. He took her to a hollow tree and guarded the door with a stout web. Then he brought her some dried chestnuts and called his friends to come and admire her beauty. But just like the beetles, all the other spiders persuaded Thumbelina's rescuer to let her go. Crying her heart out, and quite certain that nobody wanted her because she was ugly, Thumbelina left the spider's house.

As she wandered, shivering with the cold, suddenly she came across a solid little cottage, made of twigs and dead leaves. Hopefully, she knocked on the door. It was opened by a field mouse.

"What are you doing outside in this weather?" he asked. "Come in and warm yourself." Comfortable and cozy, the field mouse's home was stocked with food. For her keep, Thumbelina did the housework and told the mouse stories. One day, the field mouse said a friend was coming to visit them.

"He's a very rich mole, and has a lovely house. He wears a splendid black fur coat, but he's dreadfully shortsighted. He needs company and he'd like to marry you!" Thumbelina did not relish the idea. However, when the mole came, she sang sweetly to him and he fell head over heels in love. The mole invited Thumbelina and the field mouse to visit him, but . . . to their surprise and horror, they came upon a swallow in the tunnel. It looked dead. Mole nudged it with his foot, saying: "That'll teach her! She should have come underground instead of darting about the sky all summer!" Thumbelina was so shocked by such cruel words that later, she crept back unseen to the tunnel.

And every day, the little girl went to nurse the swallow and tenderly give it food.

In the meantime, the swallow told Thumbelina its tale. Jagged by a thorn, it had been unable to follow its companions to a warmer climate.

"It's kind of you to nurse me," it told Thumbelina. But, in spring, the swallow flew away, after offering to take the little girl with it. All summer, Thumbelina did her best to avoid marrying the mole. The little girl thought fearfully of how she'd have to live underground forever. On the eve of her wedding, she asked to spend a day in the open air. As she gently fingered a flower, she heard a familiar song: "Winter is on its way and I'll be off to warmer lands. Come with me!" Thumbelina quickly clung to her swallow friend, and the bird soared into the sky. They flew over plains and hills till they reached a country of flowers. The swallow gently laid Thumbelina in a blossom. There she met a tiny, white-winged fairy: the King of the Flower Fairies. Instantly, he asked her to marry him. Thumbelina eagerly said "yes", and sprouting tiny white wings, she became the Flower Queen!


Printable version is here: http://docs.google.com/Doc?id=ddnpsnq9_4f233m9

It Seems I'm Blogging Everywhere!

Since NaBloPoMo changed the set up for participation this year, I now have a blog on nablopomo.ning.com. That's fine BUT I also have a Wordpress blog because that's where Draw Mo' is hosted. Really, sometimes I am such a dingbat! I could have just participated from THIS blog. Yes, I can rectify the situation but I've decided to keep multiblogging until the end of the month. It'll either turn out to be an interesting experiment OR complete rubbish.

I guess we'll have to wait until December 1st to find out.

Anyway, I plan to spend time this weekend "prettying up" this blog. I'll include feeds from the other sites (and vice versa) so I can stay on top of it all.

Cheers,

Thirty Days of Productivity

It's NOVEMBER and I'm excited. Is it the coming Holiday Season? No, no. It's time to fulfill some goals.

Okay, so I'm gearing up to finally write that novel, post everyday and well, draw more. What better way to keep me on track than to participate in NaNoWriMo, NaBloPoMo and Draw Mo'. This is where to find each:

Draw Mo': http://drawmo.wordpress.com

NaBloPoMo: http://nablopomo.ning.com

NaNoWriMo: http://nanowrimo.org


Thanks for joining me on these projects.

Cheers,

RC

THE RED SHOES

THE RED SHOES
by Hans Christian Andersen


ONCE upon a time there was little girl, pretty and dainty. But in summer time she was obliged to go barefooted because she was poor, and in winter she had to wear large wooden shoes, so that her little instep grew quite red.

In the middle of the village lived an old shoemaker's wife; she sat down and made, as well as she could, a pair of little shoes out of some old pieces of red cloth. They were clumsy, but she meant well, for they were intended for the little girl, whose name was Karen.

Karen received the shoes and wore them for the first time on the day of her mother's funeral. They were certainly not suitable for mourning; but she had no others, and so she put her bare feet into them and walked behind the humble coffin.

Just then a large old carriage came by, and in it sat an old lady; she looked at the little girl, and taking pity on her, said to the clergyman, "Look here, if you will give me the little girl, I will take care of her."

Karen believed that this was all on account of the red shoes, but the old lady thought them hideous, and so they were burnt. Karen herself was dressed very neatly and cleanly; she was taught to read and to sew, and people said that she was pretty. But the mirror told her, "You are more than pretty- you are beautiful."

One day the Queen was travelling through that part of the country, and had her little daughter, who was a princess, with her. All the people, amongst them Karen too, streamed towards the castle, where the little princess, in fine white clothes, stood before the window and allowed herself to be stared at. She wore neither a train nor a golden crown, but beautiful red morocco shoes; they were indeed much finer than those which the shoemaker's wife had sewn for little Karen. There is really nothing in the world that can be compared to red shoes!

Karen was now old enough to be confirmed; she received some new clothes, and she was also to have some new shoes. The rich shoemaker in the town took the measure of her little foot in his own room, in which there stood great glass cases full of pretty shoes and white slippers. It all looked very lovely, but the old lady could not see very well, and therefore did not get much pleasure out of it. Amongst the shoes stood a pair of red ones, like those which the princess had worn. How beautiful they were! and the shoemaker said that they had been made for a count's daughter, but that they had not fitted her.

"I suppose they are of shiny leather?" asked the old lady. "They shine so."

"Yes, they do shine," said Karen. They fitted her, and were bought. But the old lady knew nothing of their being red, for she would never have allowed Karen to be confirmed in red shoes, as she was now to be.

Everybody looked at her feet, and the whole of the way from the church door to the choir it seemed to her as if even the ancient figures on the monuments, in their stiff collars and long black robes, had their eyes fixed on her red shoes. It was only of these that she thought when the clergyman laid his hand upon her head and spoke of the holy baptism, of the covenant with God, and told her that she was now to be a grown-up Christian. The organ pealed forth solemnly, and the sweet children's voices mingled with that of their old leader; but Karen thought only of her red shoes. In the afternoon the old lady heard from everybody that Karen had worn red shoes. She said that it was a shocking thing to do, that it was very improper, and that Karen was always to go to church in future in black shoes, even if they were old.

On the following Sunday there was Communion. Karen looked first at the black shoes, then at the red ones- looked at the red ones again, and put them on.

The sun was shining gloriously, so Karen and the old lady went along the footpath through the corn, where it was rather dusty.

At the church door stood an old crippled soldier leaning on a crutch; he had a wonderfully long beard, more red than white, and he bowed down to the ground and asked the old lady whether he might wipe her shoes. Then Karen put out her little foot too. "Dear me, what pretty dancing-shoes!" said the soldier. "Sit fast, when you dance," said he, addressing the shoes, and slapping the soles with his hand.

The old lady gave the soldier some money and then went with Karen into the church.

And all the people inside looked at Karen's red shoes, and all the figures gazed at them; when Karen knelt before the altar and put the golden goblet to her mouth, she thought only of the red shoes. It seemed to her as though they were swimming about in the goblet, and she forgot to sing the psalm, forgot to say the "Lord's Prayer."

Now every one came out of church, and the old lady stepped into her carriage. But just as Karen was lifting up her foot to get in too, the old soldier said: "Dear me, what pretty dancing shoes!" and Karen could not help it, she was obliged to dance a few steps; and when she had once begun, her legs continued to dance. It seemed as if the shoes had got power over them. She danced round the church corner, for she could not stop; the coachman had to run after her and seize her. He lifted her into the carriage, but her feet continued to dance, so that she kicked the good old lady violently. At last they took off her shoes, and her legs were at rest.

At home the shoes were put into the cupboard, but Karen could not help looking at them.

Now the old lady fell ill, and it was said that she would not rise from her bed again. She had to be nursed and waited upon, and this was no one's duty more than Karen's. But there was a grand ball in the town, and Karen was invited. She looked at the red shoes, saying to herself that there was no sin in doing that; she put the red shoes on, thinking there was no harm in that either; and then she went to the ball; and commenced to dance.

But when she wanted to go to the right, the shoes danced to the left, and when she wanted to dance up the room, the shoes danced down the room, down the stairs through the street, and out through the gates of the town. She danced, and was obliged to dance, far out into the dark wood. Suddenly something shone up among the trees, and she believed it was the moon, for it was a face. But it was the old soldier with the red beard; he sat there nodding his head and said: "Dear me, what pretty dancing shoes!"

She was frightened, and wanted to throw the red shoes away; but they stuck fast. She tore off her stockings, but the shoes had grown fast to her feet. She danced and was obliged to go on dancing over field and meadow, in rain and sunshine, by night and by day- but by night it was most horrible.

She danced out into the open churchyard; but the dead there did not dance. They had something better to do than that. She wanted to sit down on the pauper's grave where the bitter fern grows; but for her there was neither peace nor rest. And as she danced past the open church door she saw an angel there in long white robes, with wings reaching from his shoulders down to the earth; his face was stern and grave, and in his hand he held a broad shining sword.

"Dance you shall," said he, "dance in your red shoes till you are pale and cold, till your skin shrivels up and you are a skeleton! Dance you shall, from door to door, and where proud and wicked children live you shall knock, so that they may hear you and fear you! Dance you shall, dance- !"

"Mercy!" cried Karen. But she did not hear what the angel answered, for the shoes carried her through the gate into the fields, along highways and byways, and unceasingly she had to dance.

One morning she danced past a door that she knew well; they were singing a psalm inside, and a coffin was being carried out covered with flowers. Then she knew that she was forsaken by every one and damned by the angel of God.

She danced, and was obliged to go on dancing through the dark night. The shoes bore her away over thorns and stumps till she was all torn and bleeding; she danced away over the heath to a lonely little house. Here, she knew, lived the executioner; and she tapped with her finger at the window and said:

"Come out, come out! I cannot come in, for I must dance."

And the executioner said: "I don't suppose you know who I am. I strike off the heads of the wicked, and I notice that my axe is tingling to do so."

"Don't cut off my head!" said Karen, "for then I could not repent of my sin. But cut off my feet with the red shoes."

And then she confessed all her sin, and the executioner struck off her feet with the red shoes; but the shoes danced away with the little feet across the field into the deep forest.

And he carved her a pair of wooden feet and some crutches, and taught her a psalm which is always sung by sinners; she kissed the hand that guided the axe, and went away over the heath.

"Now, I have suffered enough for the red shoes," she said; "I will go to church, so that people can see me." And she went quickly up to the church-door; but when she came there, the red shoes were dancing before her, and she was frightened, and turned back.

During the whole week she was sad and wept many bitter tears, but when Sunday came again she said: "Now I have suffered and striven enough. I believe I am quite as good as many of those who sit in church and give themselves airs." And so she went boldly on; but she had not got farther than the churchyard gate when she saw the red shoes dancing along before her. Then she became terrified, and turned back and repented right heartily of her sin.

She went to the parsonage, and begged that she might be taken into service there. She would be industrious, she said, and do everything that she could; she did not mind about the wages as long as she had a roof over her, and was with good people. The pastor's wife had pity on her, and took her into service. And she was industrious and thoughtful. She sat quiet and listened when the pastor read aloud from the Bible in the evening. All the children liked her very much, but when they spoke about dress and grandeur and beauty she would shake her head.

On the following Sunday they all went to church, and she was asked whether she wished to go too; but, with tears in her eyes, she looked sadly at her crutches. And then the others went to hear God's Word, but she went alone into her little room; this was only large enough to hold the bed and a chair. Here she sat down with her hymn-book, and as she was reading it with a pious mind, the wind carried the notes of the organ over to her from the church, and in tears she lifted up her face and said: "O God! help me!"

Then the sun shone so brightly, and right before her stood an angel of God in white robes; it was the same one whom she had seen that night at the church-door. He no longer carried the sharp sword, but a beautiful green branch, full of roses; with this he touched the ceiling, which rose up very high, and where he had touched it there shone a golden star. He touched the walls, which opened wide apart, and she saw the organ which was pealing forth; she saw the pictures of the old pastors and their wives, and the congregation sitting in the polished chairs and singing from their hymn-books. The church itself had come to the poor girl in her narrow room, or the room had gone to the church. She sat in the pew with the rest of the pastor's household, and when they had finished the hymn and looked up, they nodded and said, "It was right of you to come, Karen."

"It was mercy," said she.

The organ played and the children's voices in the choir sounded soft and lovely. The bright warm sunshine streamed through the window into the pew where Karen sat, and her heart became so filled with it, so filled with peace and joy, that it broke. Her soul flew on the sunbeams to Heaven, and no one was there who asked after the Red Shoes.







The Red Shoes (film)
via Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


The Red Shoes (1948) is a feature film about ballet, directed by the British-based team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. It tells the story of a young ballerina who joins an established ballet company and becomes the lead dancer in a ballet called The Red Shoes (based on the story by Hans Christian Andersen) about a woman who cannot stop dancing. The film stars Anton Walbrook, Marius Goring and Moira Shearer. The screenplay is by Powell and Pressburger, with additional dialogue by Keith Winter and an uncredited Marius Goring.



Synopsis

Victoria 'Vicky' Page (played by Shearer) is a young, unknown dancer from an aristocratic background. At an after-ballet party, originally staged to provide a means for her to audition for him, she meets Boris Lermontov (Walbrook), the single-minded, ruthless, but charismatic manager of the Ballet Lermontov, who recruits her as a student, where she is taught by, among others, Grisha Lubov (Massine).

After seeing her perform in a matinee performance of Swan Lake[1], Lermontov realises her potential and invites her to go with the company to Paris and Monte Carlo. Lermontov has lost his prima ballerina to marriage and intends to create a title role for Vicky in a new ballet, The Red Shoes. The music is to be written by Julian Craster (Goring) a brilliant young composer engaged as orchestral coach the same day that Vicky was brought into the company.

As the premiere of the ballet approaches, Vicky and Julian lock horns artistically, and then fall in love. The ballet is a success, but when Lermontov learns of their affair, he is furious at Julian for taking Vicky away from dancing. Lermontov had once pronounced backstage that "a dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love will never be a great dancer"—and Vicky had overheard him. Julian refuses to give up Vicky and is fired by Lermontov, and she decides to leave with Julian. They marry, and Lermontov relents on his decision to enforce her contract with the ballet. He permits Vicky to dance where she pleases, but forbids her to perform The Red Shoes and keeps all the music Julian wrote for him, convinced that the young composer will amount to nothing on his own.

Some time later, while joining her aunt for a holiday in Monte Carlo, Vicky is visited on the train by Lermontov. He convinces her to dance in a revival of The Red Shoes, which he had removed from his company's repertoire after the couple left. As she is preparing for the opening night, Julian leaves the premiere of his first opera at Covent Garden to go to Vicky's dressing room at Monte Carlo. He demands that she leave with him. Torn between her love for Julian and her love of ballet, she remains reluctant to perform the ballet while Julian leaves for the railway station. Lermontov assures her that her sorrow will pass and that "life is unimportant".

While being escorted to the stage by her dresser and wearing the red shoes, Vicky suddenly runs out of the theatre. Julian sees her and runs helplessly towards her. She jumps from the balcony — from the same spot where she and Julian first realized their feelings for each other — falling in front of an approaching train. While lying on a stretcher, bloody and battered, Vicky asks Julian to remove the red shoes — just as in the finale of the ballet.

Heartbroken, Lermontov announces that Miss Page will not be able to perform "this or any other night" and says that the company will perform The Red Shoes with a spotlight on the empty space that she would have occupied.


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LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD
by Grimm

Once upon a time . . . in the middle of a thick forest stood a small cottage, the home of a pretty little girl known to everyone as Little Red Riding Hood. One day, her Mummy waved her goodbye at the garden gate, saying: "Grandma is ill. Take her this basket of cakes, but be very careful. Keep to the path through the wood and don't ever stop. That way, you will come to no harm."

Little Red Riding Hood kissed her mother and ran off. "Don't worry,' she said, "I'll run all the way to Grandma's without stopping."

Full of good intentions, the little girl made her way through the wood, but she was soon to forget her mother's wise words. "What lovely strawberries! And so red . . ."

Laying her basket on the ground, Little Red Riding Hood bent over the strawberry plants. "They're nice and ripe, and so big! Yummy! Delicious! Just another one. And one more. This is the last . . . Well, this one . . . Mmmm."

The red fruit peeped invitingly through the leaves in the grassy glade, and Little Red Riding Hood ran back and forth popping strawberries into her mouth. Suddenly she remembered her mother, her promise, Grandma and the basket . . . and hurried back towards the path. The basket was still in the grass and, humming to herself, Little Red Riding Hood walked on.

The wood became thicker and thicker. Suddenly a yellow butterfly fluttered down through the trees. Little Red Riding Hood started to chase the butterfly.

"I'll catch you! I'll catch you!" she called. Suddenly she saw some large daisies in the grass.

"Oh, how sweet!" she exclaimed and, thinking of Grandma, she picked a large bunch of flowers.

In the meantime, two wicked eyes were spying on her from behind a tree . . a strange rustling in the woods made Little Red Riding Hood's heart thump.

Now quite afraid she said to herself. "I must find the path and run away from here!"

At last she reached the path again but her heart leapt into her mouth at the sound of a gruff voice which said: "Where ' . . are you going, my pretty girl, all alone in the woods?"

"I'm taking Grandma some cakes. She lives at the end of the path," said Little Riding Hood in a faint voice.

When he heard this, the wolf (for it was the big bad wolf himself) politely asked: "Does Grandma live by herself?"

"Oh, yes," replied Little Red Riding Hood, "and she never opens the door to strangers!"

"Goodbye. Perhaps we'll meet again," replied the wolf. Then he loped away thinking to himself "I'll gobble the grandmother first, then lie in wait for the grandchild!" At last, the cottage came in sight. Knock! Knock! The wolf rapped on the door. --~ "Who's there?" cried Grandma from her bed.

"It's me, Little Red Riding Hood. I've brought you some cakes because you're ill," replied the wolf, trying hard to hide his gruff voice.

"Lift the latch and come in," said Grandma, unaware of anything amiss, till a horrible shadow appeared on the wall. Poor Grandma! For in one bound, the wolf leapt across the room and, in a single mouthful, swallowed the old lady. Soon after, Little Red Riding Hood tapped on the door.

"Grandma, can I come in?" she called.

Now, the wolf had put on the old lady's shawl and cap and slipped into the bed. Trying to imitate Grandma's quavering little voice, he replied: "Open the latch and come in!

"What a deep voice you have," said the little girl in surpnse.

"The better to greet you with," said the wolf.

"Goodness, what big eyes you have."

"The better to see you with."

"And what big hands you have!" exclaimed Little Red Riding Hood, stepping over to the bed.

"The better to hug you with," said the wolf.

"What a big mouth you have," the little girl murmured in a weak voice.

"The better to eat you with!" growled the wolf, and jumping out of bed, he swallowed her up too. Then, with a fat full tummy, he fell fast asleep.

In the meantime, a hunter had emerged from the wood, and on noticing the cottage, he decided to stop and ask for a drink. He had spent a lot of time trying to catch a large wolf that had been terrorizing the neighbourhood, but had lost its tracks. The hunter could hear a strange whistling sound; it seemed to be coming from inside the cottage. He peered through the window ... and saw the large wolf himself, with a fat full tummy, snoring away in Grandma's bed.

"The wolf! He won't get away this time!"

Without making a sound, the hunter carefully loaded his gun and gently opened the window. He pointed the barrel straight at the wolf's head and . . . BANG! The wolf was dead.

"Got you at last!" shouted the hunter in glee. "You'll never frighten anyone agaln.

He cut open the wolf's stomach and to his amazement, out popped Grandma and Little Red Riding Hood, safe and unharmed.

"You arrived just in time," murmured the old lady, quite overcome by all the excitement. ~

"It's safe to go home now," the hunter told Little Red Riding Hood. "The big bad wolf is dead and gone, and there is no danger on the path.

Still scared, the little girl hugged her grandmother. Oh, what a dreadful fright!"

Much later, as dusk was falling, Little Red Riding Hood's mother arrived, all out of breath, worried because her llttle girl had not come home. And when she saw Little Red Riding Hood, safe and sound, she burst into tears of joy.

After thanking the hunter again, Little Red Riding Hood and her mother set off towards the wood. As they walked quickly through the trees, the little girl told her mother: "We must always keep to the path and never stop. That way, we come to no harm!"





Additional Information


Get this story and more from Project Gutenberg

Childhood's Favorites and Fairy Stories
The Young Folks Treasury, Volume 1
Language English
EText-No. 19993

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Little Red Riding Hood
A traditional story
via the British Council's LearnEnglish Kids website

Little Red Riding Hood is visiting her Granny. But when she gets to Granny's house, Granny looks very strange! Is it Granny? Or is it the wolf she met in the wood? What will happen to Little Red Riding Hood?

CLICK HERE TO READ AND LISTEN TO THE STORY



Little Red Riding Hood
via Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Little Red Riding Hood is a famous folktale about a young girl's encounter with a wolf. The story has changed much in its history, and been subject to numerous modern adaptations and readings.

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.


Little Red Riding Hood Cookie Jar
Patent Image
via About.com Collectibles


Some RED for Red

I've been overrun with work lately so I've become rather remiss regarding posts. Well, it's high time to rectify the situation. I've decided to devote the next few postings to stories, etc. with RED in the title.

I maintain several blogs and websites but this blog will regain its prominence in the update queue very soon. Thanks for your patience.

Cheese




Cheese


by Sushma Joshi
via East of the Web


Gopi encountered cheese two years after he came down to Kathmandu.

Prakash Babu was returning from Switzerland. That land of miraculous clocks which always told the time in minute precision, not like the few minutes late, few minutes early time of Nepal. That twin land of mountains, that mirror image of peaks, but so much more Westernized, so much more modern, than Nepal's own mythologically burdened ones. Everybody was sure the mountains of Switzerland must somehow be a little bit better, a little bit nicer, a little bit more civilized, than their own poor, benighted country's. Never mind if Nepal had the tallest ones in the world - who cared about tall when there were more important things to think about, like cleanliness and hygiene. Modernity and precision. Who cared about tall when you could have the cleanest, most sanitized, most modern mountains in the world.

Prakash brought back with him a suitcase full of gifts: cashmere sweaters, Italian leather shoes, quartz watches, wooden birds that popped out of wooden houses and went "Cuckoo!", porcelain figurines holding hoes and buckets in pink and gold. And stuffed into some side pocket of the hard vinyl suitcase was the most important of them all - a grab-bag of airline goodies, embossed on the side with the name of the airline. After all, how could one prove one had flown an airline without one of those bags filled with mustard yellow socks, black eye-strain masks, little plastic containers of orange marmalade, plastic spoons and knives, little mint candies? How convince a country populated with disbelieving skeptics that those claims, indeed, were true? French chocolate was always good, a solid chunk of bitter foreign material melting into your tongue and signifying distance, travel, adventure, truth. But even chocolate, these days, could be bought at some shop, and was no longer a reliable indicator of long and distant travel. The only sure proof, these days, was cheese.

The cheese sent the household in Mahaboudh into a minor furor, and got the neighbors talking even before Prakash Babu arrived. Sharmila, the recent married daughter-in-law, was so excited she boasted haughtily to no one other than Fulmaya, the teashop lady: "Prakash Babu wrote to us, telling us he'll bring some cheese. Cheese from Switzerland, if you can imagine what that is like. But how can Nepalis ever appreciate real cheese, when they haven't even tasted any?" Fulmaya, never one to give up a good piece of gossip, had told the entire neighborhood about the cheese by the end of the morning. "Those Tiwaris will be talking about the cheese - Surjyaland cheese, if you can imagine what that is like," she said, imitating the recent bride's stuck-up tones, "for the next ten years." The old woman who sat in the tiny butcher shop next door snorted. "Yeh, Sanokanchi. Who the fuck does that fool of a girl think she is, anyway? And cheese - that family can stick it up their insides, for all we care. After all, we're never going to see a piece of it, are we? Huh, huh?"

<>

So it was into a neighborhood bursting with rumors and resentment that Gopi, the ten year old cousin who had been brought down from the village to be the household help, stepped out to do his daily chores. His responsibilities included:
  1. Carrying the copper tray for the old lady and trotting behind her at the proper pace when she went out to do her morning prayers at five am in the morning.
  2. Bringing the wood, the coal, and the kindling so that the daughter-in-law could light the fire.
  3. Bringing water from the well to the fifth floor, where the kitchen was located.
  4. Cutting the vegetables, cleaning the rice, soaking the lentils, shelling the peas and any other sundry time-consuming tasks that arose in a kitchen with a mortar and pestle and precious little else.
  5. Taking care of the younger children, attending to the nitpicky demands of the older ones, and in general, being at the beck and call of anybody else in the household of twenty-four people who felt like taking a stab at him eighteen hours of the day.
  6. Shutting up and not speaking, unless spoken to.
  7. Taking the blame for everything that went wrong, including acts of God, nature and genetic insanity.
  8. Smiling and accept it all with a good grace. ("What did he think this was, some kind of bureaucratic post, where he could sit around and do nothing?").

Prakash Babu came back on one of those chilly winter mornings when all Gopi wanted to do was curl up and go back to sleep again. But the old woman wouldn't let him. "Gopi!!" she shouted, frantically tucking her wool shawl around herself. "Go fetch a taxi! Go, go! It's almost time for the plane to land." The plane was scheduled to come in at ten in the morning, and it was only seven. A thick mist still hid the milkman as he came by, clinking his milk cans, but Gopi was not going to argue with Mami. The older sons lined the mossy courtyard outside the house and chatted while their mother rushed to get ready.


"Gopi!" The old woman shouted in irritation. "Why are the pots not out here yet?"

"I'm bringing it, Mami," he called out. Mami, he called her. Mother, just like her sons. They were much older than him, and he was more the age of her grandchildren. But he still called her "Mami", an artifice of the wealthy in Kathmandu to give the illusion that their poor cousins were treated like family, not servants. Gopi said "Mami" with the wryness of a ten year old who knows his own place in the world, and who can barely wait to get out of it.

<>

Gopi ran in with two copper pots full of water and put them on either side of the wooden doors. He split some water by accident. Oops. Well, if some brat from the house slipped and fell, he wouldn't be too sorry about it.

"Now go get the taxi. Hurry, hurry, hurry!" said Mami, as she busily sprinkled a little red vermilion and a few pink hibiscus on top of the pot, a big welcome for her prodigal son.

Gopi opened the big, creaking tin gates, and ran down the narrow lane. Taxis were not easy to flag down. Several taxi-drivers, their back seats empty, drove by the frantically waving boy in his scruffy shoes before one small, dented turquoise taxi finally slowed down before him. "Where to, boss?" said the driver. He looked down at Gopi's worn Chinese sneakers, then up at the shirt meant for a grown man hanging on the ten year old body, and spat on the ground.

"The airport," Gopi said. His voice was split between delight at the thought that this arrogant taxi-driver would know he was going to the airport, that exit-way into the heavens of foreign places, and anxiety that the man would not put the meter on and charge him double fare, making the old woman even more angry with him.

"Oh." The man's eyebrows went up in a friendly arch. "Is your man coming from inside or outside?" he asked.

"Outside," said Gopi, nonchalantly staring out of the window. "You'll put the meter on, dai?"
"Alright, alright. And where is he coming from?" asked the taxi driver, checking Gopi's underfed silhouette once more in the overhead mirror.

"Swizzilan."

Gopi swung the tin-gates open for the taxi, then waited for everybody to pile in, including Mami, her three sons and two grandchildren, before squeezing himself into the backseat. Mami, who was generously proportioned, took up more than her fair share of the seat.

"Switzerland!" said the youngest son, releasing the word like a reverent mantra to his little daughter, perched on his knee. "Your uncle's coming back from Switzerland." "What is he bringing us?" Rukmini, her pigtails bouncing up and down, asked excitedly. "He probably ate cowmeat all year long," grumbled the oldest brother from the front seat. "I hope he doesn't bring any cowmeat with him." "Hush, Babu! Don't say these things on this day," Mami admonished, as she rifled in her plastic bag to make sure her marigold garlands and her vermilion were in order.

<>

Gopi loved coming to the airport. He loved to look inside the glass windows that were so transparent he was afraid he would run into them. He loved the smell that people brought with them, the odor of tiredness that had steeped in the pressure of high altitude for hours. And he loved the roar of the planes as they lifted their big bellies and took off, their steel bodies lighter than the sky. He had heard the noise of the planes for the first time a year ago when he had come down to work at the house of his distant relatives in the Valley. The sound was so loud it had made him run and hide behind the old woman. Now he waited for it, loving it and dreading it with equal fervor.

He ran his fingers through the dividers that cut a blood-red, velvet line between the Nepalis and the foreigners. He licked the glass as he watched the radar spin and control the magical landings from the concrete rooftop of the Tribhuwan Airport.

Gopi followed the family out to the roof just in time to see the Royal Nepal airplane circle the Valley, once, twice; an eagle with steel wings missing the tips of the hills, miraculously. Then it landed. Tiny people with tiny ladders ran around, opening the doors. He craned his neck to see Prakash as he got out of the airplane. When he spotted the long, lean body among the faceless crowd, he waved and yelled as loudly as the others.

Prakash Babu came out, waving and smiling. He looked pale but well-fed, that unaccountable look that accompanied people who spent time in foreign countries. "Babu! You've become so thin!" said the old lady as she fell over Prakash, garlanding him with marigold flowers and smothering his forehead in vermilion tika. "Ama. Watch out for my glasses," he said, as he tried to fend off the marigolds as they suddenly pulled off his glasses and left him in a blurry, unfocused void. The old woman loved her third son a lot, Gopi had to say, as he watched the old lady tuck the glasses back on her son's face. She never came to pick up any of her other sons in the airport when they returned from traveling, which they frequently did in the course of their jobs.

<>

But Prakash had also gone away to a foreign country, crossing the ocean. Unlike his brothers, who had only traveled across the border to India, Prakash had gone to Europe. He had been chosen by the government to be one of the Nepalis to go and study at Lausanne's hotel management school in Switzerland. It was a big honor. The country had recently opened its boundaries to the outside world, letting in, for the first time, a small stream of foreigners. In exchange, other countries had graciously offered their support, including Switzerland, which had offered to show Nepalis the rules of commercial hospitality. Tribhuwan airport had only recently been built with a single runway, and cows still grazed around the tarmac before and after the plane landed. It was a time of encounters: a small stream of people poured in from either direction, bringing stories of other worlds, other horizons, other ways of being.

Gopi, tussling with the heavy Samsonite suitcases, noticed that they were papered with small tags and colorful stickers. Swiss Air, Lufthansa, Air India, Royal Nepal. Gopi had no knowledge of English or even his native alphabet, but he knew enough to know that these were the names of the airlines that Prakash Babu had just flown across the world on.

Back in the house, Prakash Babu waited until evening, when all of his four brothers and their wives had come back from work to open up his suitcases. Everybody converged in the old parents' room, including Suntali, the seventy year old cook, and Lati, the woman who washed the dishes in complete silence because she had never learnt how to speak. The room was so crowded there was no room to sit, so Gopi stood by the door and watched. Prakash sat on a bolster in the middle of his parents' room and unpacked, telling them stories. How the plane had been delayed, how his school had been the most famous school in hospitality management, how his professor had given him good marks.

Delay. Management. Professor. The foreign words filled the room along with the smells and crisp colors from the newly opened suitcases. Deliberately, he removed one gift after another from the suitcase. Shiny watches, soft wraps, toys made with real machinery. The gifts tumbled out, each one more enticing, more new, and more unreal than the last object.

<>

"A watch for you, father. The one you asked for," said Prakash.
The old man took a sip of his hot milk, and spat it out of the window. "The milk is too hot," he said. His voice cut across the crowded room with the everyday anger of domestic tyranny. The elder daughter-in-law got up to take the glass. She handed it to Gopi so that he could put it in a bowl of cold water. "What kind of watch?"

"A Rolex, Baba," said the older brother. He touched the links, which were made of solid gold. It was just like the kind they advertised inside the covers of Time magazine, featuring famous tennis players and Olympic swimmers.

"A Rolex?" asked the old man. He took his spectacle case from below his pillow, blew on the glasses to steam them up, then wiped them with a little yellow cloth. Then he put them on his nose and inspected the watch. There was a minute of silence as the family watched the old man.
"First class," he finally pronounced. Prakash looked relieved. It was hard to please his father.

The old man took a long, gurgling pull at his hookah. "But the links are not twenty four karat," he said.

"It's still gold," said the older brother, hastily trying to smooth over the old man's discontent.

"Not real gold." The old man took a long, slow sip of milk. "The milk is too cold."

The oldest daughter-in-law, silent, picked up the steel glass and gave it to Gopi so he could heat it up again.

Prakash had brought a cashmere stole for his mother. The old lady felt the wool, sighed, opened her metal safe with the bunch of keys that hung at her waist, and deposited the cashmere shawl into it. "It's beautiful, babu. It's beautiful," she assured him, in the tone of someone who had given up delighting in small things, and yet still keeps up the pretense. Almost as an afterthought, she pushed her hand deeper into the safe and emerged with a packet of crystallized sugar for the children.

But the children, today, could not be distracted by the mundane sweetness of ordinary treasure. They sat transfixed over unknown, but undoubtedly more important things. There were less flashy but still authentic Swiss watches for the brothers. There was a red and brown toy train that went choo-choo and moved around on little tracks for Prakash's only son. The train, which was eight feet long, had real windows and benches inside, and a steering wheel in the engine cabin in the front. The boy sat in awe as his father handed him the enormous toy.

<>

There were woolen wraps in elegant grey and taupe colors for his sisters-in-law. The women took the wraps and put them on their laps demurely. The grey and green were not particularly beautiful, but there was something in their very dullness that signaled the indefinable stamp of authentic foreignness. The women would wear them proudly, not because the colors made them look good - they didn't - but because they knew everybody would know at once that they had the status of obviously exported items. Later, they would talk at length about the terrible quality, and Prakash Babu's cheapness, and how they were sure he got his own wife a golden chain that he was not showing to the other members of the family. But right now there was no room for complaints. People took what they were given and made sure to look satisfied.
It seemed that the shiny, plastic wrapped packages were coming to an end. The girls were swallowing their disappointment when their uncle delved in his bag once more and came up with five bars of gold and red wrapped chocolate, which he gave to the eldest girl.

"Chocolate," he said. The eldest girl, Rita accepted the bars importantly, glaring at the others in case they tried to grab them out of her hands.

"I want the wrapper," Rukmini said, as she tried to take a bar away from her sister's hand. The wrapper glittered with the silver Alps in the background.

Rita held the bar above her head. "You can have the foil."

"I want the foil!" said Roshana, the youngest.

"We'll split it in three," Rita said as she carefully divided the golden foil into three pieces and handed a piece each to her sisters. The girls folded their little squares of gold for later use and put them inside the pages of their textbooks for maximum safety.

Rita broke off the pieces of chocolate and handed them out. Gopi watched in horrified fascination as brown sludge oozed out of the children’s mouths. Suntali, the old cook, put her square into her mouth, squeezed her face like a dry lemon, and ran to spit it out.

"Give some to Gopi," Mami reminded. Gopi, ten years old and hungry for experiences, could not wait until they handed him, grudgingly, his little square of chocolate. Gopi unwrapped the foil, a shiny, crinkly, golden treasure. It folded up in a neat square, the wrinkles miraculously disappearing as he pressed down on it. He popped the chocolate in his mouth. A faint smell, like that of alcohol, quickly gave way to a thick, bitter sludge on his own tongue.

<>

The taste was so unexpected he wanted to run and spit it out. He looked around. The girls were ecstatic, munching delightedly on the bars and loving it. It would be humiliating if he were the only one among the children to spit it out. He controlled the urge, closed his eyes, did not breathe, and swallowed. He knew the girls would laugh at him if they saw him acting like the old cook. The girls wanted more, but the chocolate had disappeared. They would have to wait for a few months, or a few years, before some relative went away again on a foreign tour.

It seemed that the suitcase had finally emptied. There were no more gifts to be had. Gopi, his taste buds still spinning from some unknown bitterness, felt the dissatisfaction at the bottom of his stomach. Was that all there was to this bounty? What else existed beyond the hard and crisp edges of machine manufactured objects? Why did it feel like the guarantee of an unknown haven had fallen flat on its gold-wrapped promise? He felt the hunger of unfulfilled desires echoing in the hollow depth of his stomach.

There should be something more than this, he thought, as he watching the empty suitcase's lid come down with a slap.

"Oh, I almost forgot," said Prakash Babu, taking out a white, silver wrapped package carefully from a pouch on the side. "Here's cheese."

"Chij!" said the children. Their eyes reflected their longing. Prakash had brought a box of cheese with him last time he came from Switzerland, and the children had tasted it. They had talked about it reverently ever since, dropping the word "chij" in their conversation casually, mysteriously. Gopi, in his ignorance, had been baffled why they kept on referring to that "thing" they had eaten. In Nepali, "chij" means, simply - a thing. How was Gopi to know that the "chij" of the children's conversation was a thing of monumental importance. A thing that was almost ambrosia, almost the food of the gods, only found in faraway spaces. The humble thing-i-ness of the word suddenly traveled to the exotic underworld of the senses and came up packaged in silver foil and cardboard, smelling faintly of time zones and jetlag, coated with the grime of airport lobbies and the sanitized crackle of guilders. The word, suddenly, had status.

<>

Now they eyed the package hungrily as their uncle took it out. They wanted their piece, but they knew they might not get it. There were twenty-six people gathered in that room. Prakash Babu handed over the precious cargo to his mother, relinquishing the responsibility of dividing it. The old lady asked for a knife, and when it was brought to her, cut the small, round white cake in uneven little pieces. The men got the biggest portions. The children got the second biggest. They stuffed the pieces in their mouths hungrily. The white pieces melted like butter in their mouth, gone in a second.

"No, its alright" said the eldest daughter-in-law, when the old lady handed her a piece. The daughters-in-law were ruled by the guidelines of modesty, and could not accept any delicacies. The old lady, who was a devout Brahmin with a strict regimen of dietary taboos, would not eat anything that had been prepared, and therefore polluted, by the taint of the outside world. Tomatoes, onions and garlic were on her list of forbidden foods. She also avoided using glass, since one never knew the status of its profanity. Cheese, therefore, was unacceptable to her on three grounds - one for its public origins, second for its preparation by unknown hands, and third for its association with the dirty act of fermentation.

"Gopi, get me a plate, will you?" said the old lady. Gopi, in a torment of anticipation, ran straight down to the kitchen, grabbed the plate, and was back in a minute. He became hopeful. There were a lot of little white wedges in the plate in front of the old woman. Maybe he would get to taste that thing the children constantly talked about.

A moment later, the cheese was almost gone. On the plate lay one single slice of white cheese. Gopi could not bear it. All the children were munching contentedly. What did it taste like? What was so good about it?

Gopi held his breath. Everybody had had a share, even the old cook, who again spit out her share with the same agonized look on her face. Would Mami give him the last wedge?
"Mami. Can I have the last one?" said Roshana. Roshana, the youngest one, sitting demurely and avoiding, for once, her incessant picking of the scabs of her skinned knee. The one who he towed around in a bicycle and played badminton with all day long. The greedy monkey. She knew Gopi was standing right there by the door. She knew he hadn't had a piece. But what could he do? He couldn't ask for it in the same way she could.

<>

"Don't eat too much," said her grandmother absently, handing the last wedge over. Gopi felt the disappointment sinking through his body like a small stone as the little girl shoved the cheese into her mouth triumphantly. Kookurni. She knew he had been waiting with longing all evening long. She knew it, and yet she had ignored him like he wasn't even present in the room. Like he didn't exist.

Gopi could not forget the idea of cheese from that moment on. He desired it so much it become a constant longing in his mind, one that accompanied him in his waking and dreaming moments.
That night, he dreamt about cheese. Huge white circles of cheese with giant holes in them hung from his ceiling. His body twitched restlessly as he climbed up the cheese, using the holes as foot-holes, until he got to the top. Then he put his small teeth down and started nibbling his way down, but wait - all the holes were collapsing, and there was no way to climb down. He was like Kalidas, who had cut off the branch he was sitting on and realized too late that he was falling off the tree. The next day, as he sweated in the small plot of land hoeing and planting cauliflower and soybeans, he thought longingly about the soft whiteness in his mouth.

He thought about it for so long, and so much, he knew eventually there was nothing for him to do but get a piece of it. There was only one minor problem - it was so expensive even the rich families did not eat it. Even if I save all the coins that fall into my hand, I won't be able to buy a hundred grams of cheese by the time I die, he thought in despair. The old woman gave him five rupees a month, along with dal-bhatt, lodging and her sons' old clothes in exchange for his labor. The five rupees, which turned to ten, twenty, fifty, hundred, two hundred, and then five hundred over the next ten years, was swallowed up for the daily sustenance of his big family back in the village, from the mustard oil and salt of the daily meals to the tobacco that packed his grandfather's hookah.

A week after he came down from his village to work in the city, he had discovered the existence of Nepal Dairy, an institution that provided the milk to the households of Kathmandu. "Remember the old days when cows were still roaming the streets? The milk was so fresh then," the old folks reminisced, forgetting that the cows, in all likelihood, ate street garbage and provided milk that tasted of their urban diet. In their memories, the cows, the milk, and the extended, joint families took on the hazy glow of nostalgia. Those were the day, bygone, heavenly days when one did not have to drink milk from a bottle. Ah, those were the days. Nobody quite knew where the dairy milk came from, but there were long, dark speculations about its impurities, its dreaded composition, and its strange bluish color.

<>

One of the exotic items that the famous Dairy stocked, along with ice cream, was cheese. Prakash Babu had taken Gopi there once, and had bought him a cone of ice cream. His mouth had almost frozen from the shock of the cold, and the sugar had eaten away at his rotting tooth and given him a piercing moment of pain. A tear had squeezed out of one eye involuntarily with the pain of it all, but he had smiled and said that he liked it. But he still had not tasted cheese.

It took Gopi twenty years to realize his dream. Twenty years, during which he grew older, got married, grew a beard, acquired a strange tic in his speaking pattern, fiercely guarded his ambiguity toward politics, built a house, cremated his father, and reevaluated his revulsion toward that slimy vegetable known as okra. Throughout this period, he also watched an endless stream of relatives fly in and out of Nepal. His nephews and nieces, whom he had helped to put through school, themselves returned from foreign lands with suitcases full of gifts. But his responsibilities, which seemed to grow with each year, were still so binding he could not spare thirty rupees to buy anything other than bare necessities. The desire for cheese turned into a deferred dream, slowly maturing in his mind, year by year. It was almost twenty years after Prakash Babu came from Switzerland before Gopi, who had finally snagged a much coveted job at a hotel, found enough extra money to fulfill his desire. In a bright blue day covered with the purple bruises of jacaranda flowers, Gopi got on his old Chinese bike and cycled toward the city. "I'm going to buy some chij today," he told the old cook as he clanged his way out of the shiny new corrugated tin gate.

"Why do you want to spend money on that demonic food? It smells like rot and tastes like vomit." The old cook was too old to mince her words, but Gopi was not going to let her deter him from his mission.

"I've been waiting for this for almost twenty years, Didi," he confided. "I am not going to stop now."

Lainchowr was almost twenty minutes away. The sun shone down fiercely, but Gopi was so happy to feel the scratchiness of the notes in his chest pocket he sang a family planning jingle all the way to the grilled gates of the Dairy.

<>

Big carts full of bottled milk stood outside in the yard. The whole place smelt of milk slowly turning sour, laced with the heavy rancid odor of old fat. The old world speculations of the impurity of Dairy milk had finally crystallized into fact when the news had finally broken in the newspapers. Gopi had been sitting in front of the television when he heard the news.

The Nepal dairy milk was irradiated with the unknown, almost incomprehensible toxic accident of Chernobyl. Poland, desperate to get rid of its old stock of milk powder, had dumped it on the market of the Third World. A year after the news of the accident had swept the television sets of the world, the citizens of Kathmandu, getting up in the morning to drink their tea and standing on street corners reading newspapers, felt a shock as they realized that fallout was still happening in the "Third World", and that the Third World was them. The news had suddenly become their lives, their stories. It was all a bit unsettling.

The placid, smiling fa├žade of the citizens of Nepal broke, for one brief moment, as they rebelled against this most intimate and intrusive radiation that was entering their bones and their blood. For a brief week, middle class households all over Kathmandu refused to buy milk from the Nepal Dairy Corporation. The bottles piled up outside the yard in Lainchowr, and finally, the chairman, in desperation, came on television and drank an entire bottle of milk straight out of the mouth. He waved the bottled and yelled at the screen: "Look at me! I am drinking this milk! This is the milk that my children are drinking every day!!"

People had been impressed. Not by his lies, or his various claims and assurances his family was drinking Dairy milk. Of course everybody knew that a smart man like him was doing no such thing, and that anybody with a bit of sense, and a bit of money, was buying powdered milk from Australia. No, the people were impressed by the audacity of his performance, the sheer brilliant oratory which was going to force an entire nation to drink irradiated milk, simply because the people in the Corporation had received a generous kickback from the Polish companies. The audacity was delicious. People knew they were being exposed to cancerous substances. At the same time, they had to admire the passion, the drama, the theatre of the absurd. They had to admire the political convictions of leaders, who talked so convincingly and so sincerely and who believed their own stories so much they made their dissenters doubt their own knowledge. So a week after the big commotion, people, having voiced their objections and gotten political protest out of the way, once again went back to the business of living and lined up outside the Dairy to get their daily bottle of slightly bluish milk.

<>

Gopi, who could not be bothered about the futuristic possibilities of irradiated milk, locked his bicycle and walked up to the queue that stretched around the yard to the grilled window. People were lined up to buy their daily rations. The queue, sweating and dusty, shuffled slowly toward the grille. The sweat trickled down his face as he waited. After twenty minutes, his turn finally came.

"Chij, Sauji," said Gopi.

The man, the edges of his blue cotton cuffs lined with black grime, looked him up and down with impatience.

"How much?" he asked. He was a busy man. He did not like small orders.

"Thirty rupees," blurted Gopi.

The man took down a big yellow round of cheese from a shelf above him. Gopi, watching him anxiously, got worried. The cheese, in the dim filtered light, looked yellow. The other cheese had been white. As the man sliced a piece, Gopi asked hesitantly: "Isn't cheese supposed to be white?"

"Yes, well, if you are used to getting yours from Switzerland," said the man with nasty humor.

"Here we have either Dairy or yak cheese. Which one do you want?"

Yak was an animal that was relatively familiar and yet unknown. For a hill-born and bred man like Gopi, the thought of yak became tainted with dangerous, unknown taboos.

"I'll take the Dairy cheese," he answered hesitantly.

The man, exasperated with the slow decision, sliced a swift slice, scraped off the edges, and then wrapped the rest in a piece of newspaper.

"What else?" He said, as he handed over the cheese.

"This is enough," said Gopi, his voice reflecting dread as he handed over his hoard of crisp bank-notes. He could not wait to put it in his mouth. At the same time, now that the thing was in his hand, he was afraid to find out. What if it did not come up to his expectations?

The yard was crowded with people fighting to get to the front of the line before the bottles ran out, which they frequently did. Gopi walked outside, clutching his precious cheese in one hand, towing his bike with another. A mangy dog came loping up as he came outside, putting a warm, wet muzzle toward his plastic bag. "Ja! Ja!" Gopi yelled at the animal. The dog, sensing an imminent beating, loped away mournfully into the distance.

<>

Gopi propped his bike on the wall that surrounded the Royal Palace, and pulled himself up on a low ledge. He slowly unwrapped the precious package. Inside was a big triangle of off-white chij. He picked it up on one edge, and slowly carried it toward his mouth. It smelt faintly repulsive, but Gopi wasn't going to let a smell stop him from tasting this thing now.

He bit into it. His teeth went through, softly, satisfyingly. He felt his saliva swirl around it. A slight taste now, of some moldy, sweaty, fungi-like thing in his mouth. He chewed some more, but the taste started to get worse, more intense, moving from fungi to decomposing milkfat, from decomposing milkfat to dirty laundry, from dirty laundry to some existential hollow, vomit-inducing thing in his mouth. In horror, he swallowed.

The swallowing was a gag reaction in the wrong direction. As soon as he swallowed, his body reacted, and his stomach reacted, and he started gagging and retching by the walls of the Royal Palace. He retched, and he retched, until all the cheese finally came out of him. He wiped his mouth of the yellow slime. He looked around in shame to see nobody had seen him throwing up. Gopi had eaten the thing, but it felt almost as if it wasn't him who had eaten it - it had eaten him. All the longings at the hollow of his stomach had disgorged with the yellow slime. He slowly wiped his forehead, tied a small scarf around his neck, and cycled his way back to the house.

The Crack




by Charles Lambert



The Crack
via East of the Web




I get there almost two hours early, but it doesn't matter. I know I'll be welcome. I ring the bell and already I can hear Susan's delighted cry from the kitchen as I lower my finger - 'It must be Simon' - and see her form divided into a dozen concave images by the shell-pattern of the front-door glass, each miniature Susan stretching her arms out towards me. She opens the door and I'm drawn in and hugged, my rucksack slumped over on the step. She is wearing a pullover and a long cotton skirt. I feel her stomach and the prickle of the rough wool through my shirt. She smells of cumin and fennel seed; she must be cooking for this evening. Stepping back to look at me, she lets me go and smiles, looping her hair behind her ears, then reaches to pick up the rucksack. I follow her into the broad, uncluttered hall.

I love this house. The walls are white, but there's something about the height and placing of the windows that makes them seem amber, as though the hall were plugged straight into some source of warm, entirely natural light. Susan's eyes are hazel as she turns to beam at me again and the scent of cumin on her clothes is slowly overlaid by cinnamon as we walk to the kitchen. I try to take my rucksack from her, protesting, and we tussle playfully until I give in, with a gesture of mock courtesy. Her fingers brush against mine, their dry floury warmth like that of a husk.

'Joey's gone to do some shopping,' she says as I sit down at the table. She opens the oven and takes out a tray of biscuits, testing one with her finger to make sure they're done.

'They're for this evening really,' she says with a doubtful tone, almost of reproach. 'We've asked some people round.' She shifts the biscuits onto a rack to cool, then breaks one into two with a little sigh and offers me half. It crumbles as I eat. 'You'll like them,' she says, and I wonder for a moment what she means.

'Who's in the house now?' I say, wanting to know who she'd called to when I rang the bell. It must be someone who knows my name, I think, and I am curious, even shy. I expected Joey to be here. Susan smiles, licking a finger to dab up crumbs from her skirt, then reaches down beneath the table. She makes a crooning noise until a cat I have never seen moves warily in her direction.

<>


'You haven't met Sorrel,' she says. 'Some friends of ours passed her on to us when they went to Japan. She's still rather disorientated. I didn't mean that to be a pun. Aren't you, Sorrel?'

I suppose Susan was talking to the cat. I try to stroke behind the animal's ears, the scruff of her neck, but she pulls away, and I feel a wave of hostility that jars with the mood of the house. When she turns her head to stare, I notice her eyes.

'You're lucky she didn't take a flying leap at you,' Susan says, laughing. 'That's her favourite game. She gets up on the top of that cupboard by the door, and when anybody comes in she flings herself at them. It's a good thing she's slightly cross-eyed. Who knows what damage she'd do if she actually made contact with anyone? As it is, she just skids across the kitchen floor.'

'Why is she called Sorrel?' I ask, amused, no longer looking at the cat.

'Oh, that wasn't our idea,' Susan says. 'That's the name she came with. It's terribly precious, isn't it? I call her Sourpuss behind her back. Which is probably as bad.'

*


When Joey arrives, he puts down the shopping bags and shows me where I'll be staying. The sitting room is hardly ever used except to sleep in, and to play the untuned piano. The room smells of dust. A sofa and two armchairs covered with Indian bedspreads surround the empty fireplace; a single mattress has been propped against the wall, between the piano and the window. I put down my rucksack beside the mattress and look at Joey with affection. As usual, we are shy with each other. The first time I met him, he danced around the room, deflecting questions with a giggle, then stared intensely at me through his tortoiseshell-framed glasses when I laughed, as though he hadn't expected approval. Now we confront each other with the skewed intimacy of pen-pals. Anyone would think it was Susan I'd known for years, not Joey. I want to ask him about her, but the ballast of small talk is needed first. Joey is agitated and energetic, bouncing on the balls of his feet. I mention a friend neither of us has seen since the summer, who is planning to go to France, and Joey tells me about his brother-in-law, a bagpipe-player with a wounded hand who busks the south coast of France with Joey's sister and a Polish fire-eater. They are in Nice for the autumn, he tells me. The fire-eater's arms are covered with a lacework of puckered scars, his breath smells of petrol and garlic sausage. His stories are full of details, small sparkling things that seem to be smuggled in from a place where their brightness is natural. I listen and feel that the poetry of the world is ours. We breathe it in, like cinnamon.

*


Later he takes me upstairs to show me a painting he has done of Sorrel. The stairs run round three walls of the hall, and at each of the two landings there is a window. On the sill of the first window someone has put a pincushion in the form of a cat. I pick it up and feel it rustle between my fingers. It seems to be filled with dried herbs; it has a musty smell.

'That's Susan's,' Joey says. 'She's had it since she was a child. She thinks it brings her luck.'

'It looks like Sorrel,' I say, although there is only the most generic resemblance, and put the pincushion back on the sill.

'By the way, Simon,' Joey says, turning to look down at me from the upper landing, 'be careful to close the door when you go to bed tonight.'

'Why?'

'Because Sorrel has this irritating habit of waking people up by pulling their eyelids open with her claws.' He giggles, and I wonder whether he is serious. The last time we saw each other in this house he was emerging from a period of more than a year during which he'd done nothing but sleep. He showed me a text he'd written, an account of his dreams that had gradually started to make narrative sense. Characters had reappeared, episodes weaving together to form a story in which he was either marginal, or a feeble accomplice to disaster. When it began to seem that his moments of waking were there solely to feed the world of the dream and its inhabitants he'd abandoned the project.

Shortly after, he fell in love with Susan, whom he'd known since childhood - as though he'd opened his eyes and discovered her there, he said - and the honeymoon began. Now he is laughing, his hair lit up from behind like a dandelion clock by the light from the landing window, and I still don't know if he's joking.

'With her claws?'

'She's like a surgeon,' he says. 'So really I suppose you don't need to worry. I mean, it's precision work.' We carry on upstairs. 'She probably just wants to make sure you're there. I think she sees our bodies as shells, with only the eyes as proof they're inhabited. As soon as she's prised the lids open she sits back and washes behind her ears. I've seen her do it.' And now he is laughing, and I know that he is absolutely serious.

*


When I go in to dinner that evening, the kitchen is full of people I've never met. I want to sit next to Susan, where I feel safe, but she is beating eggs and I don't know which place is hers. Everyone stops to look at me, to smile, to welcome me to the room, which is hot and filled with smoke.

'We had a problem with the aubergines,' Susan says. She points to a baking tray of aubergines, curling and charred like petrified wood. People laugh and I relax slightly, looking round for Joey. He is playing with the cat. He glances up and smiles.

*


At the end of the meal I'm drunk enough to tell them all a story - something that happened when I was walking home one night through Seven Sisters, around three o'clock, I was in a road with a rundown line of shops on the other side, when I noticed a movement behind the window of an off-licence. I looked across and saw a man with a box of beer cans in his arms pass through the glass door. I had spent the evening with friends, in a pub in Holloway and, what with drink and a number of joints at a friend's flat, I thought I was hallucinating. I watched him disappear round the corner, then stared at the door, to make sure it was closed. I saw the frame and the handle of the door, the keyhole of the Yale lock glinting in the light from the street. And then I saw another movement and a second man swayed up from the dark interior of the shop. He lifted his foot to step over the bottom part of the frame and, once again, passed through the glass. I could have sworn I saw the shimmer of it parting. I was standing there with my mouth open when he turned and saw me. His arms were laden with cartons of cigarettes.

'Come and get a look at this,' he said, rocking backwards and forwards on his heels, his face lit up by a mad grin. He put the cigarettes on the pavement and took my arm. I tried to pull away, but he dragged me towards the door.

'Look,' he said. He pushed his hand through the glass. I waited to see the surface ripple like water, but nothing happened. Tentatively, I reached out. My hand went into the shop.

<>


'There's no glass,' said the man. 'They've taken it out. Look.' He walked back into the shop and came out with a box of crisps. 'They must have done the shop. The till's been forced and there's no more spirits. But there's loads of stuff left. The phone works too. I've just been on to Belgium.'

I stared at the man, then stepped across the threshold of the shop and picked up the phone. Ten minutes later, I had loaded a friend's car with beer.

*


I sit back and wait for the people sitting round me to laugh, but there is absolute silence; after a moment I realise they're waiting for me to finish. There must be a moral, they're thinking; that can't be all there is to it. The story can't just be about the joy of theft, the magic of the glassless door. They're waiting for the glass to grow back and trap the hand, and the surface of the world to be whole again. I look at their faces and wonder how long they've been staring at me like this. I wonder at what point it began to dawn on them that I don't belong to their world.

'But why didn't you call the police?' one of them says, and everyone shuffles cutlery in support.

'For the crack,' I say.

'The crack?' says a woman who has barely opened her mouth all evening, and I hear from her voice that she is foreign.

'The hell of it,' I say. But she is still confused. The man she is with strokes her arm. 'The fun.'

'I don't understand,' she insists. 'It is terrible. The crack is like a - what is it in English? - fissure. Like a space, I mean, isn't it?' She sounds Italian.

'Not in this case,' I say, with everyone's eyes on my face as I look at Joey. Joey will understand. But he is staring at the table, at his empty plate, flushed with embarrassment. Susan stands up and begins to clear things away. Another woman says: 'But didn't you even think about the owner? Didn't it even occur to you that he might not have been insured? He was almost certainly Asian.' Her voice is affronted, unimpeachable. Shall I tell her that insurance has never entered my head? Neither then nor later. Surely she realises there is no protection? Perhaps the Italian woman is right. It's a question of fissures, of spaces opening up, of gaps. I look round the kitchen for comfort and see nothing but cast iron pots, roller blinds, blackboards with winning little messages, a string of garlic beside the window. I see the cat rise and stretch, its claws like scalpels sliding in and out of their smooth pink sheaths

*


That night, as I walk down the stairs from the bathroom, I see the pincushion in the form of a cat in the alcove of the window. I watch my hand reach out and take it. I continue downstairs and go to bed.

*


Stealing gives you a different view of the world. You find out there is nothing that can't be transferred from the hands, or homes, or pockets, of one person into yours. If you steal as a child, you realise how eager people are to believe in innocence - which is nothing so much as precocious guile and worldliness. You see that the world is full of people who refuse to face up to the truth of the matter, that you can't keep anything for long. Children who steal soon learn that nothing lasts, and that everything must be enjoyed as it passes, fleetingly, through your possession. It's only later they understand that the joy of theft doesn't lie solely in getting your hands on what you want, but in depriving someone else of it.

*


The next morning, I'm half-awake, mildly hung-over, when I remember what Joey said about the cat and realise I forgot to close the door the night before. I stiffen on the mattress, the bedspread pulled across me, every sense straining to detect the presence of the cat, scared that a sudden movement might be enough to make her whip out a claw. She might be sitting beside me, the way cats sit, silently cleaning the fur behind her ears. I listen for the rasp of her tongue.

The rest of the house is asleep. Although my eyes are closed I can tell from the blood in my lids that it's early, soon after dawn. The room has the musty, camphor-like scent of cupboards and stale air, of slightly damp wool. I lie there and as I imagine the cat beside me, I don't know why, I begin to think of Joey.

Joey had another girlfriend once, a French au pair in Cambridge. She was thin, gamine I suppose you'd say, with straight hair and a long upper lip. From a distance they looked like twins. I never knew what her real name was but Joey called her Bibiche. After going out with him for a week or two, she started sitting next to me.

<>


One night, we all got drunk and went back to a friend's room, where Babouche and I rolled on the bed together, with Joey slumped in the corner. I don't remember feeling very much, certainly not affection or desire for Bibiche, not even a trace of guilt for Joey, no sense that she or I might be hurting him; sometimes he seemed to be enjoying it. The next day we walked along Devil's Dyke and she held my hand and already I wanted to get rid of her. Joey was bounding backwards and forwards, avoiding our eyes, which amused Bibiche, who rubbed herself up against me whenever he came close.

It was so obvious to me I was being used that I almost expected sympathy from Joey; at the very least a recognition we'd both been tricked. But what I got was a photocopied sheaf of poems in which Bibiche was celebrated with a skill I could only admire. The last time anyone saw Bibiche she was necking with someone at the Union disco.

*


And now I know why Joey came into my head. It must have been about two months later, after term had ended. I'd gone back to Cambridge for a party, and found myself sleeping on Joey's floor. We never mentioned Bibiche, and I assumed his silence was tacit assent that we'd both been wronged.

During the night I woke up. The curtains were open and there was enough light in the room to make out shapes. I lay there for a moment, wondering what had woken me, whether it had been a dream or some movement in the room. Then I saw Joey.

He was kneeling beside me, naked, his long hair tucked behind his ears, both hands between his bone-white thighs. His cheeks glistened in the moonlight. He was rocking slightly, his eyes closed, as though in a trance, some deep dream state.

*


Now, as I lie here, I think of Joey and imagine the cat, its paw lifting neatly towards my face. I open my eyes as quickly as I can, to surprise it. But there's nothing, no one - I know I'm safe.

*


When I get to the kitchen Joey is washing up. He's opened the windows to clear the air of smoke and the room is cold. I wonder if he'll say anything about last night, but of course he doesn't. He stacks up plates, scraping the waste food into a bin which will later be taken somewhere and given to animals, I imagine, from the care devoted to it. I imagine them carefully sorting their refuse into categories, paper here, plastic there, bottles arranged by the colour of their glass. As I sit in the cold and still disordered kitchen, I'm enthralled by the web of commitment that seems to sustain it all. The absence of supermarket packaging, the dangling bundles of herbs from the cooker hood.

*


I'm waiting for him to finish, so that I can ask him about last night, something vague I might be able to use as a tool to prise the truth out of him, when Susan comes in. She's wrapped in a kind of kimono, which opens to show the well-worn flannelette of pyjamas. She looks flustered.

'Have you seen my cat?'

'Sorrel?' says Joey, wiping his hands on a tea towel. 'She was in the garden a few moments ago.'

'Not Sorrel,' says Susan. 'My cat. My cloth cat. The cat on the stairs.'

I stare at her, her monosyllabic insistence.

'You sound like a primer,' I say. 'If you work a few verbs in later, you've got a winner.'

'Have you seen her, Simon?' she says, turning towards me, pleading, and I see that she is close to tears.

I glance at Joey, who stares back at me.

'The one I showed you yesterday,' he says. 'The one filled with herbs.'

'Maybe Sorrel's got it,' I say. 'Sorrel's a sort of herb. Like attracts like, after all.'

After some coffee I go to pack, checking the cat is hidden inside a pair of socks. I'm slightly worried she might want to go through my luggage.

*


I phone a few days later. Susan answers after the second ring. I try to remember where the phone is in their house, then suddenly think, of course, it's on the landing. She must have been standing on the landing, thinking about her cat.

'Well,' she says thoughtfully, when I tell her who it is. 'I expect you'd like to speak to Joey.'

'Yes,' I say, although I'd have been happy to chat with Susan for a while, to get my bearings. I hear her shout, and I have a vision of her looking up and of Joey in the bedroom, asleep and dreaming. I look at my watch and see to my surprise that it is after midnight. She must have been standing by the window, trying to see through the mirror of the glass into the garden. Or perhaps she was looking at herself.

And now, waiting for Joey, I begin to wonder why I called. I wanted the conversation to take me somewhere new, but it seems that I shall have to be responsible for what is said, that it is my call, also in the sense that it would have if I were playing cards. Maybe I should up the stakes. When Joey comes to the phone, I say: 'How are things?'

<>


'All right.'

'Did I wake you up?'

'No,' he says.

'How's Sorrel?' I ask. There is a silence and once again I'm aware that he doesn't want to be angry with me. He wants to like me, he wants me to be like him. He wants to be able to forgive what he sees through the crack that has opened up, or to close it. That's what he wants.

But, of course, I have no idea what he wants.

'Have you found Susan's cat?' I ask him, challenging him to tell me I'm suspected.

'She's still upset about it,' he says. 'She can't understand what happened. She says she feels violated.'

'Does she suspect anyone?'

'Not really,' he says, and I believe him. 'Everyone knows how much it meant to her. Sometimes I think she blames me.'

It's unexpectedly gratifying to hear Joey talk about Susan like this, as though she might be wrong. His normal instinct, aggravated by sentiment, is to protect his partner at all costs. I feel flattered. This is how it should have been with Bibiche.

'All we seem to do these days is argue,' he says, and I see their house dissolve, like something in a dream in which disaster and consequence meet. I lift the padded cat to my nose and sniff, and there is the scent, not entirely pleasant, of some dried herb. If I had a book of herbs I would seek out which it is, perhaps choose one by its name: something with 'bane' in the word, a plant that protects against pain only in the smallest doses and that is otherwise a poison. I should like to think it was rue, but I remember searching in the dictionary once and seeing that rue was a herb of virtue, what Ophelia called Herbe-Grace.

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