Pantry Prose: Jazz Apples by Neil Leadbeater

Jazz apples had caught Steve out more than once and ruined his act. Described as an exciting fusion between a Royal Gala and a Braeburn, the look of them always made him nervous. Steady up until this point, they constantly wrong-footed him and sent his logic into overload. They might be great for snacking on but they were not great for Steve’s purpose. Steve was beginning to regret that he had added them into his act. Compared to other more traditional apples, the Jazz ones were a relatively recent phenomenon. The original cross had been done in 1985 on some trees at Hawkes Bay, New Zealand and the apples had launched commercially in 2004. Coming from down under they had up-ended his logic and disturbed his equilibrium.

For days after they came into his hands he had studied their colour as a means of identification: flushes of red and maroon over shades of green, yellow and orange. It was quite a colour range to remember.

All in all, there were now 20 different varieties of apple that he had committed to memory but the more he increased the number, the more difficult it was becoming to hold them all in his head. At the local village fête, some people liked to recite the alphabet backwards at speed, but Steve was the only one who could guess at the name of a row of 20 apples by sight alone that had been placed in a certain order by a third party beforehand. He had managed this feat for several years now and was beginning to gain a reputation for his extraordinary skill but since he had introduced the Jazz apple, his luck had begun to run out. The Jazz was the joker in the pack.

He took it so seriously that he practiced for weeks before the event. Each day, his son Billy would arrange the apples in a different order and listen while his father reeled off the names, names that conjured up the fires of autumn and harvest. Sometimes Billy would act the fool and tease his father by placing a rogue apple in the pack, a rare one like the foxwhelp, a bittersharp cider apple, one of the oldest, from Gloucestershire. Steve would agonise over its identity and, finally giving in or getting it wrong, would sigh with relief when Billy told him that it was only meant as a joke and did not consist of the usual run that he was trying to remember in his head.

Guessing the names of 20 varieties of apple might seem like a feat to you or me but when you consider that there are over 2,500 different varieties in the UK alone, a spoilsport would say that it was no big deal.

When the time came, Steve was ready for the challenge. The local grocer placed each apple in its proper place and in an order that Steve did not know about. In front of each apple there was a number and all Steve had to do was to call out the name of the apple and hope that he had got it right.

No. 1 gave him no trouble at all. It was one of his favourite varieties and so he was used to seeing it every day in the fruit bowl on the kitchen table. It was a fruit packed full of juice that delivered a lot of sweetness. Its blush and its stripe was at once familiar to him. It was one of the first “bi-coloured” varieties, a characteristic now regarded as essential for sales purposes. ‘It’s a Braeburn’ he said. There was a round of polite applause.

No. 2 was a Pink Lady. Steve always referred to Pink Ladies as his blushing beauties. They were one of the first to blossom and the last to be harvested. All those hours of glorious daylight in the sunniest of places gave them a wonderful patina.

No. 3 had a stripy red skin that made him think Royal Gala.

No. 4 was a Worcester Permain, named after its place of origin.

No. 5 was causing him problems. If he couldn’t guess one immediately, he was allowed to come back to it later so he moved on quickly to No. 6. The shiny, orange-red skin with its golden background made him think it was a Kanzi or ‘hidden treasure’ in Swahili. He wasn’t entirely sure about this but he said it anyway and waited anxiously for the grocer’ response. Steve breathed a sigh of relief when he heard the word CORRECT.

He went back to No. 5 but was still unsure about it and so he passed on to No. 7. It was a striking red so he said very confidently that it was a Junami. He was doing well but there was no room for complacency. It got easier as he progressed because none of the apples he had already identified came round a second time which in turn narrowed the list of those still to come.

No. 8 was of medium size, orange-red in colour deepening to bright red and mottled with carmine over a deep yellow background. To Steve, it was easy-peasy, it could only be a Cox’s Orange Pippin. CORRECT! A round of applause followed. The adjudicator then asked the crowd to be quiet while Steve thought long and hard about the next one.

Behind him, the gymkhana was in full swing at the village fete. Further away to his right there were cake stalls, cream teas, raffles and tables brimming with home-grown vegetables. There were plenty of other competitions going on. Some children were trying to guess the number of sweets in a jar, one little girl was trying to guess the name of a doll while another one kept asking her mother if she could have a cuddly toy. It was easy for Steve to get distracted but he kept his focus all the time on the apples. By now he had guessed Discovery, Rubens and Red Prince. For some anxious moments he’d been unsure about the Kingston Black but it turned out that he had been right about that one too.

Morris dancers were dancing round the maypole. People were queueing up for the tombola. The place was getting busier and Steve was finding that his powers of concentration were beginning to wane. The audience noticed that he was taking longer to reach his verdicts on the apples lying in front of him. Sixteen down and four to go. So far so good. It would all come right in the end.

No 17 was easy. It was one that even an amateur would know at first sight, a distinctive apple with a light brown skin, dull sheen and cream freckles. Without hesitation Steve said that it was an Egremont Russet. CORRECT! Another round of excited applause.

Other distractions weighed in from time to time: some children were playing skittles while others were having a go at pinning the donkey’s tail. Every so often there was the sound of a can ‘popping off’ at ‘tin can alley’. Punters were flinging beanbags at a row of coconuts, and children hurling wellies as far as their strength could throw them.

It was time to get this apple business over and done with. No. 18 was a cinch. Its green waxy sheen was a giveaway. It was a Bramley – ideal for cooking up a culinary storm. On to No. 19. This one, by some process of careful deduction only known to Steve, was an Evelina. Everything now rested on No. 20. Steve suddenly realised that the Joker had so far not made an appearance. This, he concluded must be it. With a sense of relief and not undisguised excitement, he declared it to be a Jazz apple. CORRECT.

That just about wrapped it all up until the next time.

Neil Leadbeater is an author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His publications include Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, Scotland, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus Press, England, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, England, 2014), Sleeve Notes (Editura Pim, Iaşi, Romania, 2016) Finding the River Horse (Littoral Press, 2017), Penn Fields (Littoral Press, 2019), and ‘Reading Between the Lines’ (Littoral Press, 2020). His work has been translated into several languages including Dutch, French, Romanian, Spanish and Swedish.

You can find more of Neil’s work here on Ink Pantry.

Pantry Prose: RNA by Gary Beck

As I rounded first base I felt a tear in my hamstring that shot up my leg with a stab of hot pain. It forced me to slow down, but I had to keep running because I was on the edge of the bubble and was afraid of getting cut from the team. I risked a glance to right field and saw that the ball would get to second before me. I tried a desperate hook slide into the bag, but the second baseperson blocked me and came down hard on my legs when she tagged me. A streak of fiery pain that made the hamstring feel like a tickle seized me in an agonizing grip and I writhed in anguish. I heard the second baseperson’s hoarse voice through the haze of shock: “Your season’s over, old man.”

The team treated me as I expected: abrupt removal to a third level med-center, since I only had a tier three contract. I was very lucky to see an intern, since tier three didn’t entitle me to a doctor. The most I could normally hope for was a med tech. Tier three didn’t include x-rays, but after moderately careful manipulation the doc informed me that the anterior cruciate ligament was definitely torn. So second base was right. The team’s HMO representative had accompanied me to the med center to ensure that I didn’t exceed my benefits. He announced my options: laser surgery and three days care in the open ward, with appropriate medications, then departure by public transportation; or laser surgery, transport to my residence by ambujit and one week of home care by a licensed nurse’s aide. All veteran ball players knew what open wards were like, so I didn’t even think about it before opting for home care.

The HMO rep was already indignant that the team would have to pay for a doctor and had me sign various forms exonerating the team from any liability. I had to sign, or risk losing my meagre pension. The HMO rep had more power than the coach. He tucked the documentation in his bizsac, authorized the doc to provide laser surgery and spoke into his comphone. A few minutes later a nurse’s aide entered and properly identified herself according to guild requirements. “Hello. I’m nurse’s aide Felicity, guild registration number 672, reporting for assignment. The HMO rep gave her the care restrictions. While she listened attentively I had a chance to look her over. She was tall, about 5’9”, with an athlete’s body and looked as if she could handle any kind of emergency thrown at her. She was around thirty years old, but her untroubled face, bright blue eyes and blonde hair cut in the short lezzie style made her seem much younger. I had worse caregivers over the years.

Nurse Felicity looked at me reassuringly while she drew a hypo. The HMO rep hovered fretfully and verified that she used the minimum Demerol dose. He was beginning to annoy me almost as much as my aching leg. The injection started to take effect and although it didn’t remove the pain, it made it bearable. I had nothing else to do while I waited for the doc, so I began to take stock of myself. I was a thirty-eight year old professional ballplayer with a body going on sixty. I had lasted years longer than most players because I still looked young on camera, the prime career determinant now that ball games were no longer played in front of live audiences. If I recovered from this injury, if another team wanted me, if a little hair dye could fool the judgmental camera, I might eke out another marginal season. After that I didn’t know what else I could do.

It felt like centuries ago when I graduated from George W. Bush High School, in Amarillo, Texas, as a star football, baseball and basketball player. I wasn’t college material because of poor academic performance, so I opted for a professional sports career. Fortunately the pro teams will take anyone who can play well enough, despite the lip service they pay about the necessity for education. Then I made the most intelligent decision of my life. I knew even then that I couldn’t do much besides play ball, so I chose baseball, because it was less of a contact sport than football or basketball. I thought I might be able to extend my career longer, if I didn’t get knocked around every time I played. It turned out to be the smartest move I ever made.

I didn’t often think about the past. I had some good years as a right fielder, including five with the Hiroshima Dragons. I had been very popular with the local fans, who easily recognized a distinct American from afar. My only regret was that I didn’t learn Japanese so I could talk to people. It would have been fun to jabber away in their language, but I never could remember enough words. I did like their manners. They still showed some respect for others. I would have stayed in Japan for the rest of my career, but they got a younger, faster token American. After that I came back home and moved from team to team, sometimes on the field, sometimes on the bench. I hung on when younger and better players were cut, because I could play any outfield position and first base in an emergency. It also helped that I could still manage to hit close to .250.

So here I was in a grubby med-centre with at least a season ending injury, probably a career sign off, with no ideas for the future. I didn’t have a nest egg. I never managed to save, despite a meagre life style. I was an ancient journeyman in a young profession, without name or fame that could be traded in for civilian security. I had no skills, no credentials and no experience, except as a marginal pro ballplayer. I wouldn’t even be desirable in a low life sports bar, because I lacked sufficient celebrity. I guess I had to start thinking about what to do with my life, but I wasn’t well-equipped for making a life plan. Too many years of just being a hit and fetch ball dog had worn away most of my thought process. I sort of accepted whatever came along, without worrying too much about the future.

Nurse Felicity brought me back to the present with a gentle pat. “We’re ready for surgery now.” She lifted me onto the gurney with surprising ease and wheeled me to the laser room. Despite all my injuries over the years that included broken fingers, toes, sprains, strains, as well as innumerable aches, pains and other ailments, I never required surgery. I was scared and it showed. Nurse Felicity crooned soothing sounds that were supposed to reassure me. The HMO rep kept getting in my face, babbling about how grateful I should be for receiving generous extra contract services. All I wanted to do was look at strong, shapely nurse Felicity, but the HMO rep kept blocking my view. I couldn’t insult him because he controlled health benefits, so I drifted into a fantasy, where I picked up my tungsten bat, swung for the fence and blasted the chub’s head clean out of the ball park…. I idly wondered why they called it a ball park.

Nurse Felicity looked at me as if she could read my mind. I instantly forgot about the HMO rep and tried to look innocent, because I wanted her to think well of me. I didn’t have a girl and it had been a long time since baseball groupies chased me. The thought of a week with a pretty nurse who could haul me around made me forget my fear for a while. At least until the doc came in. He looked too young to be an intern and I suspected they could be pushing a med student on me, but I didn’t dare say anything. If I offended the HMO rep he might cancel my treatment and I’d find myself on the street. So I carefully bopped my tongue stud on the roof of my mouth so it couldn’t be seen and didn’t say anything. A tier three contract didn’t allow piercings.

The procedure itself didn’t take long. Nurse Felicity curled me on my side, the doc adjusted my position with a clumsy hand that gave me a jolt of pain, then zapped the torn spot with a beam of light. He looked me in the eye for the first time. “Don’t put any weight on that leg for two months, then carefully begin to walk on it. I think we can give you crutches until then.” He looked inquiringly at the HMO rep, who consulted his handbook, then begrudgingly nodded yes. “With any luck you’ll be good as new in six or eight months,” the doc said. Right. Good as new. I wasn’t good as new when I was new. “Can you give me some pain pills, doc?” The HMO rep was there like a shot. “Your benefits package doesn’t entitle you to painkillers. You’ll have to manage with neurodumps. Now let’s conclude the treatment session and get you on your way.” This chub was really ticking me off, but I didn’t dare offend the power structure, so I gave him the same conciliatory smile that had worked for me for years.

The doc condescendingly waved goodbye. I guess he was a little miffed at treating a lowly tier three patient. Nurse Felicity lifted me back on the gurney and we headed for the ambujit. The HMO rep had me sign the fair care release, the med centre doors closed, nurse Felicity stowed me in the back of the ambujit and we pulled away from the curb. The ride to my crib seemed to go on forever. Every pothole reminded me of the current state of urban decay with a jab of pain. My only consolation was that at least the injury happened at a home game. If it happened when the team was on the road I would have really been torqued. I don’t know what they would have done with me, but they probably would have dumped me at the nearest tier three med-centre and left me on my own. My only option then would have been a dubious appeal to the players union, which like most other American unions, had been worn down over the years, or bought off by the bosses.

The neighbours didn’t bother to look when nurse Felicity rolled me into my crib. They were more accustomed to seeing people carried out, than brought in. She quickly and efficiently organized the small space so I could get to the bathroom on my crutches and easily reach the kitchen unit for meals. She adjusted the couchbed so I could watch the large wall TV, my only luxury. She was the first woman who had ever come into my crib. Well I guess the landlady counted as a woman, even though I thought she was a nasty old bag. One of my neighbours, a rabid sports fan, once told me she had lost all her assets, except this building, in the big technology crash of 2001. Well, no wonder she was bitter, living in a dump like this, if she was used to better.

As I watched nurse Felicity do things around the crib, I had an unaccustomed feeling of well-being. I wasn’t used to a woman’s presence, especially in this little room that I never thought of as home. The last real home I could remember was a foster home when I was five or six. The ortho parents wanted a bright, artistic child to enrich their lives. Instead they got a morose brooder, who they quickly tired of. After that I shuffled from one group home to another, until I finally graduated from high school, where I was never the life of the party. In fact, except for time on the ball field, I was pretty much invisible for most of my life. Well it just made me feel worse when I felt sorry for myself, so I just enjoyed the treat of nurse Felicity fussing around, trying to make me comfortable.

She finished her chores and got ready to leave and a well of loneliness rose in me. I urgently snatched at a reason for her to stay a little longer. “Could you just show me how to make a freeezemeal?” She looked at me with an understanding twinkle in her serene, sky blue eyes and my heart raced. She knew I didn’t want to be alone. It only took a few moments to prepare the meal and she was ready to go again. I wouldn’t shame myself by pretending to be in worse condition and I couldn’t find another pretext to keep her with me, so I said the only thing I could think of: “Do you want to have something to eat with me?” She smiled sweetly: “No thank you.” I got a pang of rejection. “Is it because I’m black?” “Oh no. Only the Chinese don’t like black people and you know they don’t like any Americans. In fact they have their own med centres and I’ve never even had one as a patient.”

I was getting desperate for her to stay and asked plaintively: “Then why won’t you eat with me?” “I don’t really eat.” “What do you mean? Everybody eats.” She shook her head. “Enhanced sentients don’t. I take liquid nutriments.” I didn’t know what she was talking about. “What’s an enhanced sentient?” “A flesh and composite being with A.I.” I looked at her, uncomprehending. “You mean you’re not a real person?” “Of course I am, even though the nurses union wants to prove that we aren’t human in its class action suit. I don’t think much about it though. I’m too busy taking care of my patients.” I was stunned. Was I being turned down by an android? After this what was I supposed to do, ask the ball boy machine for a date?

I was at a complete loss for words as she headed for the door. She turned with a bright smile. “I’ll see you tomorrow for your first day of home treatment.” I felt like laughing or screaming, but I did neither. I watched her leave with a feeling of despair that plunged me into a pit of self-pity. The only thought that kept racing through my mind was that I couldn’t ever seem to connect with anything real.

Gary Beck has spent most of his adult life as a theatre director and worked as an art dealer when he couldn’t earn a living in the theatre. He has also been a tennis pro, a ditch digger and a salvage diver. His original plays and translations of Moliere, Aristophanes and Sophocles have been produced Off Broadway. His poetry, fiction and essays have appeared in hundreds of literary magazines and his published books include 21 poetry collections, 7 novels, 3 short story collections and 1 collection of essays. Published poetry books include:  Dawn in CitiesAssault on NatureSongs of a ClerkCivilized WaysDisplaysPerceptionsFault LinesTremorsPerturbationsRude AwakeningsThe Remission of Order and Contusions (Winter Goose Publishing, forthcoming is Desperate Seeker); Blossoms of DecayExpectationsBlunt Force and Transitions (Wordcatcher Publishing, forthcoming are Temporal Dreams and Mortal Coil); and Earth Links will be published by Cyberwit Publishing. His novels include a series Stand to Arms, Marines: Call to Valor and Crumbling Ramparts (Gnome on Pigs Productions, forthcoming is the third in the series, Raise High the Walls); Acts of Defiance and Flare Up (Wordcatcher Publishing), forthcoming is its sequel, Still Defiant); and Extreme Change will be published by Winter Goose Publishing. His short story collections include: Now I Accuse and other stories (Winter Goose Publishing), Dogs Don’t Send Flowers and other stories (Wordcatcher Publishing) and The Republic of Dreams and other essays (Gnome on Pig Productions). The Big Match and other one act plays will be published by Wordcatcher Publishing. Gary lives in New York City.

You can find more of Gary’s work here on Ink Pantry.

Pantry Prose: Click Bait by Balu Swami

Laila was a bush pilot, crocodile hunter, face climber, BASE jumper and, more recently, wingsuit flyer. She was also asthmatic, arthritic, and anaemic. According to her doctor, she also suffered from tinnitus – a diagnosis that she had a hard time accepting. Initially, the doctor thought that her condition was caused by damage to auditory cells. When tests showed no damage, he termed it ‘perceived’ tinnitus. What she heard, on occasion, is a muffled clicking sound that seemed to come from a deep well. The clicking had a pattern although she couldn’t quite map it. She sure as hell knew it was not ‘perceived’ or ‘subjective’.

When billionaire Carlos’s New Horizons Corp announced it was seeking astronaut candidates to work on a Mars-orbiting space station, Laila jumped at the opportunity. Although she did not have a degree in science or engineering, her pilot experience and her notoriety helped her leapfrog to the front of the line. The notoriety was a good bet. One of the cable networks dug up a photo of a naked Laila with a python around her neck. When a reporter asked her if there was any truth to the story that she slept with the entire football team in college, she corrected him saying, “the basketball teams – men and women.” All of this brought tons of attention to the mission and the company’s stock went up which, in turn, helped the company raise more capital. Carlos couldn’t be happier.

During the two years of training, Laila noticed that the clicking sound got clearer and more distinct every time she performed zero-g manoeuvres. But then parabolic flight does all sorts of shit to the body, so she filed it under the ‘who the fuck knows’ bucket and forgot all about it. During launch, she was all nervous energy and during different stages of ignition, she was too excited about the prospect of leaving Earth’s orbit to focus on anything about herself. It was the same thrill she felt BASE jumping or wingsuit flying: Rush, Rush, Rush.

The clicking returned several months later during her first spacewalk. This time, the sound was more pronounced and had the structure of an algorithm. She found the experience quite unnerving. She kept telling herself, “This isn’t happening. Sound waves can’t travel through space.” In the following days, as she worked with the crew on the building blocks of the space station, she trained her mind to shut out the sound. Once phase I of the project was complete, she called ground control and asked to speak to Dr. Allen, the chief astrophysicist. Dr. Allen didn’t have an answer for her, but she asked Laila to document, as much as possible, her auditory experience. Laila was sure Dr. Allen meant auditory hallucination.

Back on earth, Laila noticed that her vision had gotten blurry and the clicking had returned, only this time it was no longer faint. She underwent a battery of tests and it was determined that weightlessness in space had reshaped the structure of her eyes. Neurobiologists called it neuro-ocular syndrome. The tests, however, found nothing wrong with her hearing. There was a lot of babble about auditory cortex and neural responses, but the simple conclusion Laila came to was that her hearing had gotten more acute to compensate for the vision loss.

There it rested until she got a call, one morning, from Dr. Chandra, an acoustic scientist at UK’s Centre of Astrophysics. They wanted to record the signals Laila’s auditory nerves were sending her brain. They wanted to compare them to the gravitational waves from solar flares, supernovae and other cosmic happenings that the Centre had been recording for years. Laila thought the whole idea was bizarre but agreed to participate in the study.

Two years later came the answer: The clicking sound Laila had been hearing came from a black hole 1.5 billion light years away. Soon they were finding ‘hearers’ all over the world – a farmer in Uzbekistan, a monk in Bhutan, a 24-week-old foetus inside a pregnant woman in Romania. The foetus could hear the clicking that the mother couldn’t. In the traditional and social media, the headline was the predictable ‘Is anybody out there?’ For Laila, the question was ‘how can I get there?’

Balu Swami lives in the US. His works have appeared in Ink Pantry, Adelaide Literary Magazine, Flash Fiction North, Short Kid Stories, Twist and Twain, and Literary Veganism.

You can find more of Balu’s work here on Ink Panty.

Pantry Prose: Shit Lottery by Perry Genovesi

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On the first night it snows, she finally discovers who’s leaving the trash bags outside her apartment. Luna follows the bag’s track to an unassuming rowhome one block south of hers. The air smells of car exhaust and a yellow glow shines above the porch in the upstairs window. From the front door, a thin hand appears, gripping another black bag’s top knot like a marionette. Then the vestibule light flicks off. A porch light blinks on.

“Can I help you?” the woman calls.

“No!” says Luna, standing in an empty parking space. “You weren’t going to bring that trash to the house on the corner down on Rodman, were you?”

“No,” the woman says. She heaves the misshapen bag down the eight steps and onto the sidewalk it thumps. Snow culls in its ridges. Then, from the bag, an entire doghouse, with a shingled, rust-red roof, tumbles off the curb and flips into the street. Its inner walls are painted glittering green. Luna says, “Last week it was…plates. All made up like dimes…and…the week before that, laundry bags with dollar signs on them? I’m not angry,” Luna says. “Are you a set designer?”

“A what?” says the woman.

“A set designer. Do you make props for a stage, a movie set? A movie about money? About Wall Street?”

“Oh, no.”

The woman gives a little shout Luna is ascending her steps. “You owe me a confession,” she says.

“Listen. There’s someone I’m taking care of right now. This is all him.” Then the woman pouts. “My name’s Amara. I can tell you more about him more about Mr. O’Hanlon, if you want to come inside. There’s coffee. That’s your house on the corner there, right?”

Luna nods. “A coffee.” She cozies up with the thought of a drink with a new person who is not a man. “That would be,” Luna feels the need to pause during a passing car’s rumble, “nice. Do you mean now? Who’s Mr. O’Hanlon?”

“Mastermind behind all this. I guess he’d like that,” says Amara, rolling her eyes. “I usually don’t. Look, maybe we can stay on the porch?”

“No, it’s freezing out! And I…want an explanation.”

The door opens a crack and a line of light stripes the floor.

A week ago, a bag full of dark dinner plates greeted her. On the plate’s surface someone had etched perfect profiles, in silver marker, of Roosevelt. And the week before that, she’d pulled a bag open, the bag lightening around its edges, to reveal deflated basketballs. Each ball featured the same jumble of black lines. She pulled one out and it flopped onto the curb. The lines formed a familiar face in profile: Lincoln. They were admirable renditions, with varied dates.

Luna follows Amara into the living room. Gardening tools, two dull junk flamingos, a grungy beach umbrella and green skis clutter one of the enclosed porch’s corners.

“You want a glass of wine, or water? He has some Jameson left, probably, if you want something stronger.”

Luna cowers in the moss-smelling living room. The wood panels dim the room. “Oh, wine would be great, thanks.” She pulls the bottom of her jacket over her hips. She wants to stay frozen but she’s made it this far. She creeps to an end table next to a boxy beige couch. There’s a stack of photographs on top of six shoeboxes ranging in colour from grey to brown point, and a picture of an attractive white man with a moustache and a bomber jacket stares at Luna – he’s holding a giant prize check in the foreground; in the background, a woman cheers from a doorway. Amara strides into the room with a bottle tucked under her arm and two glasses of red wine quivering.

“Thank you,” says Luna. The wine tastes like cloves and sickly-sweet cherry.

Luna lowers herself in front of a coffee table. “I do home care,” says Amara. “My, Mr. O’Han-Paddy. If I left that trash here, he’d take it, rip up the bags, bring all his crap back inside.”

“Oh,” says Luna. “The one in the pictures?”

“That’s him,” says Amara, pointing to the man with the prize check. “He used to work for a sweepstakes company. Brought those big ass checks to people’s houses. So now, I know it’s crazy but he keeps trying to make that happen again. Make stuff he thinks he’s gonna give someone. And it’ll change their lives.”

“I – there’s nowhere else to put these bags besides my house? It’s rude.”

“He gets out here and tries to find where I’ve put them on the block. Tears up other bags. He recognizes the white CVS ones with the red. I had to change out the bags. Hasn’t found where I’ve been putting them on your sidewalk yet.”

“What does he do when he finds them?”

“Stops people on the street. Tries to push frisbees, treadmill belts he says are dollarbills on them. I caught him with a stack of pancakes in February. Or brings everything back and pushes everything around. Throws it over the lamps. On the stairs. Says I’m censoring him. Says I’m getting in the way of changing lives, people winning.”

A creak echoes from where Luna assumes is the kitchen and then a heavy step resounds. Amara’s cheek flashes in profile. “Sir!” she says. “Mr. O’Hanlon?” An empty can hits the floor and rings. Then something slides toward Luna. Amara snatches it off the floor and stands, holding a small, stuffed, turquoise sack. It resembles the kind of sleeping bag Luna once took to with her ex to the Poconos.

“Let’s…see what’s inside,” says Luna.

“You don’t want that,” says Amara.

Luna takes it from her anyway. She opens the bag. Wrapping paper? The insides of a frog costume? She plucks out a tissue hodgepodge. It feels crisp and dry. The tissue is all green-marked – the same green as the doghouse.

“Well, he made you a wallet,” Amara mocks. Black dollar signs mark each leaf of paper. “Full of money. You’re rich now. You won the shit lottery.”

Luna laughs; the curtains waver in her vision.

But Amara says, “No! This is what I deal with. This right here is why I hide his trash.”

“He made it for me. It’s kind of sweet.”

“Maybe it used to be. Years ago. I tried to get used to it. Tried to appreciate his-”

“Well, there’s something special here.”

Amara shakes her head. “No. I talk to him about it. At least twice a month. For two years I’ve dealt with this.” Amara finishes her wine. “I tried to channel this mess into something regular. Something useful. Took him to the library Tuesdays. See if he wants to volunteer at that church on Rittenhouse. At the soup kitchen. Fool kept talking about how he – how he wanted to contribute. OK, I said, let’s contribute. We go to the soup kitchen for three days and then he yells at a man about – personal responsibility. They made us leave! But Paddy loved showing up at people’s doors with those big checks.

“When I can’t find him now, I know I’ll catch him at the dollar store. Stack of bodyboards under his arm.” Amara laughs a little. “He’ll carve into them with a bread knife. Write one out like one of those prize checks.” And she feigns carving, shutting an eye and sticking out her tongue. “And then I find three or four of them shoved under his bed. He’d address them to people. Neighbours. You never got one?”


“Well, I guess he’s moved on. You got that now.”

“It’s…charming. He made it for me.”

“Nuh-uh.” Amarah thrusts her hand out and curls-in her fingers. “Give it.”


“I can’t keep encouraging him. He stops people on the street. Tells them they’ve won some vacation to Brazil!”

“It’s mine,” says Luna.

“Don’t make me get angry,” says Amara.

A deep voice behind them booms: “It belongs to her!”

Amara rolls her eyes. “Stop. Giving. Her your crap, Paddy.” She tugs the bag from Luna’s hands.

In the light, his pale skin and white hair shines. A crumpled yellow oxford appears draped over a round body; he looks like an egg in a carton. Wrinkles crisscross his cheeks and lips. His pants have, dotting down each leg, bunches of mouse-sized holes. He glares at Amara. His scent is peppery, leathery. In a rough voice he says, “I know she’ll take them away. And so I must make more.”

“What?” says Luna.

Amara says, “Listen to him.”

Paddy nods. He puts his finger to his lips and disappears down a hallway. Shakily, Luna pours more wine into her glass. Then a scuffing makes her turn. Paddy is scraping a blue and orange bodyboard down the hallway. The bottom of it rubs against the wall; he has to carry it sideways.

He displays it to her, grinning with very white teeth. The print is a fine, professional font featuring decorative flourishes outlined in blue. Luna Vesna, 5501 Rodman Street, Philadelphia PA 19143. The cheque is for $500,000,000.

“Lord,” she says. “You know where I live.”

He drops the cheque and it thumps against the couch. Amara clutches green tissue paper. “He wants to make me happy. You’re keeping him from that.”

“Oh, you want him to make you happy?” She drops the tissue on the parquet floor.

“I don’t know why you’re being so rude,” says Luna. “Aren’t you supposed to help people?”

You try keeping up with him.” Amara presses her finger to her lips. “Paddy,” she says, but he turns to the hallway. Then to Luna she says, “Tell Mr. O’Hanlon why you’re here.”

“What?” Luna tips her wine glass.

“Tell him what you came here tonight to say.”

“I’m…here because you invited me for a glass of wine out of the blue.”

“Nah-uh. At the very least, tell him, tell me to stop bringing his trash to your house. Go ahead.”

Luna bites her lip. “I can’t.”

Amara says, “Can’t or don’t wanna?”

Luna shoots the rest of the wine into her mouth – it burns. ”Yes, it’s – at least it was true. Before I knew what you were trying to give me.” She looks at the cheque. “It’s very nice.”

Paddy’s lips soften and seem to melt to a frown. He whimpers. Amara says, “Oh, you’re not happy? Tell her what’s keeping you from paradise. Because I bet it’s not me having to confiscate your bags of newspapers. Treadmill parts. Beach towels, plates.” She turns to Luna. “It’s when his fantasy steps all over people. That’s when it irks me. It really irks me. I mean, lest we forget, the reason you marched over here was to tell me about it!”

Luna says, “Stop! You’re what’s keeping him from happiness! You’re slapping the ball from his hand every chance you get.”

“So, what?”

“I want you to stop. Stop getting in his way.”

“Leaving his crap everywhere? It disturbs people, you know. I’m not doing that.”

Luna turns to Paddy. “I’m sorry.” She bends for his cheque against the couch. Paddy’s stare bores into her. The cheque is bristly against her fingers. Amara says, “Get out of here before he tries to kiss you.” Paddy stares at his boots.

Back home, Luna turns on a Netflix movie she saved years ago. But she eats the rest of a box of Cheez-Its and passes out.

When she moves into her next apartment she brings the cheque.

The next man she dates is a bass player in Roxborough, David. The first night David will sleep over, he spies the cheque under her futon. He asks what the hell it is. “An art project?”

“From an interlude in my life,” she says.

The next trash night she leans it against a stop sign.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Genovesi-Author-Photo-322-768x1024.jpg

Perry Genovesi works as a librarian in Philadelphia, USA. He serves his fellow workers in AFSCME District Council 47 and plays in the empty arena rock band, Canid. You can read his published fiction in the Santa Monica Review, Maudlin House, Heavy Feature Review, and collected here. He’s come to the realization that most ‘conversations’ between two people are just subtle battles to see who has to send the first email.

Pantry Prose: Something Wanted by Robert P. Bishop

After crossing the bridge over the Yellowstone River south of Laurel, Montana, Paul turned off Highway 212 onto River Road. “Three miles to go.”

            “Are you sure it’s still there?” Margo said.

            “Yesterday Google said it was. Somebody could have put a match to it between then and now, of course.”

Paul pulled off River Road into a patch of weeds and turned off the engine. “It’s still here.”

            Margo leaned forward and peered through the windshield at the dilapidated house a few feet from the car. “This is what we came to see. Your boyhood home.” She spoke as if she was announcing the time of day or the ambient temperature.


            “We drove 800 miles from Seattle, so I can look at a tumble-down shack.” Her voice remained flat, distant.

            Paul looked embarrassed. “I guess so.”

            “Now are you going to tell me why we’re here?”

            When he didn’t reply, she squeezed his arm and said, “I’m so tolerant.”

            Paul grinned. “That’s why I married you.”

            “Nonsense. You married me for my pension.”

            Paul laughed. “Well, yes, I did, but you’re not supposed to know that.” He looked at Margo. She was the only person he knew who could smile with just her eyes. Her eyes were glowing with warmth and humour.

            He opened the car door. “I haven’t been here for sixty-eight years. Let’s look around.”

            They got out of the car. Paul surveyed the ruins of the house where he had spent the first thirteen years of his life. Gaping holes, like vacant eye sockets, loomed where window glass had once been, and the doors were missing, having been pulled from the hinges years ago. All the exterior clapboards on the house’s south wall had been stripped away by old-wood scavengers, exposing warped studs that looked like the ribs of a skinned animal with its thorax split open.

            They walked to the house. “Are there snakes here?” Margo asked.

            “Could be. One day the old man beat a rattlesnake to death with a hoe right around here.”

            “That’s not very reassuring,” she said, eyeing the thick growth of dead weeds scraping against her legs. “It doesn’t look safe. Don’t you dare go in there,” she said when they got near the house.

            He thought about her caution as he gazed at the ruin; don’t go in there. An acid taste flooded his mouth. “No, I’m not going in. There’s nothing inside I want.”

            He looked up. Two rusty corrugated metal sheets, what remained of the roof, clung to the rafters like brown scabs on a wound that refused to heal. He grimaced at the memory of him and Annie, his little sister, trembling with fear when torrential summer rains or hailstones hammered the metal roof with such fury they thought the house would tumble down and bury them under its wreckage.

            He put his hands on two exposed studs, leaned forward and peered into the house. The pine floorboards had long ago collapsed onto the earth below. Weeds growing between the rotting pieces of wood stretched upward, reaching for the sun pouring through the open wound that was the missing roof. “We never had rugs. Even in winter when it was so damn cold, we never had rugs on the bare floor.”

            Margo stepped beside him and peered into the house. Most of the plaster had fallen from the inside walls, exposing the underlying laths, splintered and shriveled with age. “It looks ghastly in there.”

            “It wasn’t much of a house to begin with. In the winter, frost was so thick on the windows Annie and I could scratch our names in it or leave hand prints like the 45,000-year old prints in those caves in Spain.”

            “Did you and Annie scratch your names in the walls like condemned prisoners do when they’re locked in some dark cellar cell awaiting execution?”

            Paul smiled. “No. We weren’t prisoners.”

            “But you were. Every little kid is someone’s prisoner.”

            Prisoner.The word shimmered in his mind. More thoughts flooded in; were we prisoners in this house, held like criminals, unable to escape? “I never looked at it that way.”

            “I would have frozen to death in this house,” Margo said.

            “We had a kerosene stove for heat. The area around the stove was the only warm spot in the house.” After a moment, he said, “And we had kerosene lamps for light.”

            “Was it difficult for you and Annie living here?”

            Paul shrugged. “No. We didn’t have much choice. What else could we do?” He smiled at the memory. “Like most kids, we survived, even if we had the worst jailor in the world.”

            “Your father?”

            “Yes, the old man.”

            “This is so depressing.” Margo hugged herself. “Why did you even live here?”

            He thought about her question. Was there a way to explain the failure of a parent who subjected his family to abysmal conditions when there was enough money to provide for a better life, a decent home, warmth, and enough food? Probably not, so he said, “Rent on this house was ten dollars a month. The old man was thrifty. The less he spent on us the more he had to spend drinking, gambling, chasing barflies and the town’s whores.”

            “That is so harsh. What a horrible childhood you had.”

            “It sounds like an ugly childhood now, but it wasn’t then, not to Annie and me. We didn’t know any better. It should not have happened, of course, but it did, so there it is.” The anger rumbled in his gut, ready to spill out if he let the heat of memory get too high. “It can’t be changed. I don’t dwell on it.” He pushed away from the studs. “I’ve told you all this before.”

            “Yes, you have.” She looked over the week-choked ground. “ Where was the outhouse?”

            Paul pointed. “It wasn’t too bad in the summer, except for the mosquitoes. In the winter, when it was ten below zero, nobody lingered reading a magazine, that’s for sure.”

            Margo laughed. “I’m sorry, Paul. I don’t mean to laugh, but that is something I can’t imagine.”

            She swatted at an annoying fly buzzing around her face. The fly landed on her cheek, irritating her with its delicate crawl across her skin. She brushed it away. The summer heat annoyed her as much as the fly. “Now are you going to tell me why we came here?”

            “There’s something I want.”

            “We’re not here for memories, are we?”

            “No. I’ve got enough of those. I want the pump. It’s on the north end of the house.”

            Margo followed him around the house to a cast iron pump, caked with rust and missing its handle, surrounded by a thick clump of dead weeds. Margo watched Paul push the weeds aside, put his hand on the pump’s spout and stroke it as if he was caressing a lover. “In the winter, if we forgot to drain the pump at night, it froze and we couldn’t get any water in the morning.”

            “What did you do?”

            “We melted snow and poured the warm water over the pump until the pipe thawed. But even when we drained the pump to keep it from freezing, we still had to prime it in the morning.”

            Margo shivered in the hot August sun. “You lived like it was 1850.”

            “I guess we did. The pioneers and us. All we needed were wheels on the old house and a team of oxen. We could have rolled across the prairie, going West.”

            He pushed more weeds away from the pump, dropped to his knees, looked at the pipe then stood and brushed off his pants. He walked to the car and returned carrying a hacksaw. He got on his knees and attacked the pipe with the saw. After a few minutes the pump fell to the ground.

            She followed him to the car and waited for him to stow the pump and the hacksaw in the trunk. They got in the car and stared at the old house. Neither one said anything for several minutes, then Margo said, “What are you going to do with that pump?”

            “I don’t know, but I’ve always wanted it.” He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel and peered at the ruined house. “I should burn it down.”

            “You’ll be arrested,” Margo said, sensing anger and grief in his voice.

            “Might be worth it.”

            “You can’t destroy memories by burning something down.”

            “No, you can’t,” Paul said.

            “Then let’s go home.”

            Paul started the car and drove away. “Maybe another time I’ll burn it down,” he said as he watched the old house recede in the rearview mirror.

            Margo put her hand on his arm. “Now will you tell me what you’re going to do with that pump?”

Robert P. Bishop, an army veteran and former teacher, lives in Tucson, Arizona. His work has appeared in Active Muse, Ariel Chart, Better Than Starbucks, Bindweed Magazine, The Blotter Magazine, Bright Flash Literary Review, Clover and White, CommuterLit, Ink Pantry, Literally Stories, Scarlet Leaf Review, Umbrella Factory Magazine and elsewhere. 

You can find more of Robert’s work here on Ink Pantry.

Pantry Prose: Faithful by Thomas Paul Smith

new year’s eve

Sometime before midnight, he walks out onto a balcony. He climbs onto the ledge and stands there — on the tails of an old year, inching precariously toward the new. He spots me below, on the other side of the street. He stops. It has been raining all night. The road holds reflections of the city skyline on the ground, like a dazzling kaleidoscopic painting on a wet canvas. Water drips into the drains, reflecting lights like electric fire. He climbs off the ledge; his eyes remain fixed on me. He smiles but looks embarrassed. Across the road from me, he is two floors up from a tree-lined boulevard. He disappears back into his apartment. I return my attention to the street again. Most of the snow has melted during the day, and now a glossy sheen covers the roads. A small group of revellers come into view, giggling and swigging drinks. They kick and throw what’s left of the snow at one another. Later on it becomes busy. People are rushing hither-thither, I guess from one party to another, before the midnight hour strikes. He has returned to the balcony, now brandishing a flute of champagne in his hand. As the clock strikes midnight, I hear cheering from the cafes and bars. He raises his glass to me and mouths “Happy New Year”. Somewhere fireworks go off. I watch their dazzling colours reflect in the apartment windows in front of me. I scan from window to window, stealing delight from celebrations never intended for me. He remains out in the cold for another hour or so before waving goodbye and returning to his apartment.


Life has returned. People on the street look fresh and rested from their winter hibernation. It’s as if they too are sprouting the first shoots of optimism for what the year has in store.

        One hazy morning I am forced forward with a violent strike. I’m stripped—my clothes torn away with impatient hands. An overweight woman huffs and puffs as she picks up my scattered clothes from the floor. She leaves. I’m left naked. A few people in the street notice me, but no one cares. Later that morning a young store assistant walks over to me. With gentle hands, she slips my arms into a white crepe shirt. The two top buttons left undone. She lowers me onto the worn carpet to get a pair of tights on me. This is something she hasn’t got the knack of. It takes her a long while to get them on; she has to wiggle my feet about to get them over my heels. It gives me a chance to look around the store. The other models are poorly made, and some are downright grotesque — missing limbs and decapitated bodies. I try not to judge, but some of the clothes they wear — good heavens! None of their outfits matches. Once I am back upright, she pulls a knee-length blue pencil skirt around my waist. The look is complete with a matching blazer. A business suit! I feel power and authority hum through my plastic body. The young woman repositions my arms before leaving. I now stand with authority, arms folded across my chest—the ruthless stance of the modern business age.

        He says he wants to be my boyfriend. He tells me he loves me. Maybe he does. In the evenings I usually see him. He once told me this is his favourite moment of the day. I want to be a good girlfriend, so it is my favourite moment of the day also. When he first came into the store, he was nervous. It was only a couple of days into the new year. On a meandering journey towards my window, he stopped several times. He pretended to look at clothes on a rack or to look at his watch. When he stood by my side, he introduced himself, almost in a whisper. He often glanced around the store and touched his face when he spoke. He told me he felt the need to explain his actions from New Year’s Eve. He said it had been six months since he last spoke to Maria, his ex-girlfriend; we don’t like her or her new boyfriend, Kenny. He tells me they had been through difficult times before and assumed they would get through this one. They had a fantastic social life, both together and separately. Then one night, she left without warning. She phoned him two days later to explain that she’d met someone else. My boyfriend imagined Maria and her new boyfriend celebrating New Year’s Eve together. Maybe on some exotic beach — drinking fluorescent cocktails and giggling under a warm sun. He said that night in his apartment; he could hear their laughter echoing around his head. He said he would never have gone through with jumping. He tells me he is dependable.


The endless days and humid nights can mean only one thing: summer has finally arrived. It warms the street, igniting the weeds and grasses that grow in the cracked pavement.

        Customers now fill the store daily. They rush about, caught up in the heat and frenzy of the long days. Gone is my business attire. The young assistant has given me a beautiful cotton dress and matching sandals. My legs feel the warmth of the morning sun shining through the store window. I also have a new posture! It’s the pose of someone who should be carefree and ready to embrace the world — a hand on my hips, one arm flying in the air and a twist in my waist. The dress and happy-go-lucky demeanour do have their downsides; the men on the street leer at my breasts and hips and partially exposed legs as they walk past the window. My boyfriend never leers. When he tells me he loves me, I can see happiness on his face. There is no reply. My lips do not move. My face remains static. None of this matters. For the first time, he visits me during the workday. He should be in the office, but he is ill. He suffers from hay fever and has taken two days off. He comments on my new dress; he likes my new look. My boyfriend has more confidence now. He no longer appears awkward. He stands up straight. One day he says, ‘I got you this.’ He puts a thin silver bracelet on my wrist and beams. When he leaves, I hear the women from the department store snigger. They call my boyfriend a ‘weirdo’ and an ‘oddball.’ He sometimes talks about all the little things Maria said that upset him. He has a long list. I think this is why I appeal to him. Outside, people’s responses are unpredictable, frightening or demeaning in his world. Wrong reactions seem to upset my boyfriend. I give him a predictable comfort; I have never said an unkind word to him. I cannot offend him by being aloof or giving him an upsetting look. Our relationship is sterile but clean and free from the usual strains.


The nights grow darker, with the last of the summer fruits eaten. Leaves lay glossy on the rain-washed street.

        I have a seductive bedroom look, a sensual bodysuit with a strappy open front and keyhole crisscross-lacing back. It’s made to thrill, complete with a bold red robe. My hand has been placed across the top of my chest, with the other resting by my side. It is a beautiful pose to bring out my desirability and femininity.

        My boyfriend is taken aback the first time he sees my new look. He is nervous, like the first time we met in the store. After a few more visits, he gains confidence. When no one in the store is looking, he tenderly strokes my leg. Sometimes he holds my hand as he tells me about his day. His palms are always sweaty. He is thoughtful. He always asks me questions like, ‘Are you warm enough?’ He never looks at others as he walks over. His passionate eyes are permanently fixed on mine. Does it matter if I’m not real? It doesn’t matter to my boyfriend. When a man stares at a naked woman, is it her personality he is interested in? Is a woman’s personality not something that some men wish to escape from? One time his phone rang while we were together. He pulled it out and scoffed at it. ‘Now she calls when I’m finally happy again.’ He hangs up and replaces the phone into his jacket. I heard today he might be going to Hong Kong next month for a business trip. ‘It’s up in the air right now, but if it does happen, I’ll bring you back something nice.’ His gaze goes down my body before he looks back up at me and caresses my cheek. ‘It’ll only be for a week… Absolutely not, work only. I have no intention of visiting those places.’


The bitter wind outside reminds us that winter is approaching fast. I observe frost glistening on the pavement in the morning half-light. Within the apartment block across the road are every child’s Christmas dreams.

        A new store assistant dresses me. She is middle-aged and has a large face with plump lips and a thick mask of makeup. She handles me firmly but not with malice. She turns around as she removes my lingerie. I inspect the other models — they’ve not had a good year. Most have cracks in their skin, and all have scraggly hair. When the assistant is finished, I am back, staring out the window. I’m wearing a beautiful vintage-inspired mint-green winter coat, a perfect antidote to any winter blues. Made from luxurious, soft materials with a detachable hood and faux fur trim, she has even teamed my outfit with a pair of matching gloves and a cosy knitted scarf.

        Snow begins to fall. I watch as cascading flakes dance on the wind. My boyfriend is walking down the street; plumes of his breath rise into the slate-grey sky. I see him approaching behind me in the reflection of the store window. We look like a washed-out photograph. When he does turn to face me, he still has snowflakes in his hair. He tells me he likes my new coat and says I look ‘homely’. Then he explains that he turned down his business trip because he couldn’t be away from me. The way my boyfriend looks tells me I should be happy, so I am happy. He reminds me it’s been almost a year since we first met. He tells me he has a particular question to ask me tomorrow. My boyfriend looks excited.

        When the store is closed at night, a middle-aged store assistant talks to some men; I hear them say I will be relocated to a new flagship store in a big city. I take a last look across at my boyfriend’s apartment. I guess I am also capable of betrayal. I wonder what he wanted to ask me tomorrow. I’m escorted to a van. As I am driven away into the winter night, I guess we’ll see how much he really does love me, as he said he does.

Thomas Paul Smith is a writer from London, England. He works as a radio show producer in Dubai. 

Pantry Prose: A Deckchair on Southport Beach by Sally Shaw

The day it began; I was me. Mabel and I had fled the wages office of Tyrers department store, to the gardens in Palmer Square. We sat on the last vacant bench, amidst giggles, mid-conversations of folk out on a mid-summer’s lunchtime. Some were courting couples, office workers, and shop assistants, others, faded mothers chasing toddlers around pushchairs. The zing of mowed grass crashed with fumes of passing vehicles. I longed for a sea breeze and deckchair on Southport beach.

Mabel chattered away about her wedding plans, while I tugged a dog hair from my meat paste sandwich. I dragged my finger against the edge of the bench to hide the fur. Meat paste clogged the ridges of my palate, and I stretched another hair from my mouth, too long to be Albert’s. I glanced at Mabel’s ponytail.

“Are you not going to finish your sandwich? After I took the time to make it for you. Oh, did I mention my wedding will be in the grounds of Charles’s parents’ stately home in Cumbria?”

Mabel had finished her sandwich and sunk her teeth into a Vanilla slice. She held out a jam tart for me. I gagged on what remained of the bread and paste, swallowed hard, before I praised Mabel for making such a tasty sandwich. I took the tart. She continued to talk and talk enlightening me to how lucky Charles was that she had agreed to marry him. How he wasn’t the best-looking man, that, that wasn’t critical as he absolutely worshiped her. I responded in what I considered to be a polite way, by asking her a simple question.

“How come your Charles hasn’t been round ours to say hello?”

She’d been going on and on about Charles and the wedding since we met, on her first day in wages. That was a month ago. Within a week we had become best friends and flat mates, although I couldn’t recall agreeing to that.

Mable spat out the answer to my enquiry, her changed tone and menaced wide-eyed glare unnerved me. I felt I was the one in the wrong. She knew I hated being called Liz.

“Liz, really, why would I bring him around to meet you of all people.”

She sniggered while dabbing the sides of her upturned lips with a pink cotton napkin. My response, squashed by a battered self-worth. I retrieved the napkin she’d tossed onto the bench next to me and folded it before putting it into my handbag along with my pride.

“Oh, best be getting back, don’t want Miss Twist picking you up on your time keeping. Oh by the way, I’ve mentioned to Miss Twist you’ll do my late this Friday. Charles is whisking me away for a romantic weekend.”

“I can’t I’m…”

“You can, I’ve told your Jimmy you’re spending the weekend with your best friend, me!”

She puckered her matt red lips, pressed her little finger to the left corner of her mouth then clicked shut her compact. She took hold of my chin and told me I’d be pretty if I smiled more, before kissing my cheek. I smiled. We walked back to work, with no more said about Friday only the sound of Mable’s voice whittering on about how special she was, and that Charles knew he was lucky. She had me carry her handbag. I walked two steps behind her, as she strutted and laughed.

“I feel like the Queen with my lady in waiting.”

I couldn’t recall why I’m her friend. Betty from our office stopped to chat, Mable placed herself at the centre of the conversation and I wasn’t acknowledged by either of them. I felt myself sink to the bottom of my stomach like I was riding the front car of the rollercoaster at Southport Pleasure Land. I never returned from the pit of my stomach. Once Betty had gone Mable grabbed my hand.

“Come on, darling, we’re going to be late. Don’t you worry I’ll let Miss Twist know it was Betty’s fault.”

For the rest of that day, I was the most important person in her life in a strange unforgiving way.

I’m sat on a deckchair, on Southport beach. Sand swirls above the damp ridges formed by the tide, like fairies and elves dancing around my bare feet. I’ve shoved my knee length tights into my sensible shoes. I curl my toes down, halos form around them, dry sand rolls over pale skin. There’s a chill to the early October day, I wished I’d come in June, even though that wasn’t possible as she was still alive. I look for the sea, far away a murky greenish line forms a break in the skyline. I turn to my left and right, I’m alone. Tiny figures move up and down the pier a mile away. A drip forms on the tip of my nose. I consider wiping it on my coat sleeve but think it’s not what a sixty-five-year-old should do. I reach down grab my handbag, balance it on my knee, I pull out what I think is my handkerchief and pinch my nose. As I scrunch it up with my spindled fingers a wave of sickness hits me. The pink cotton napkin falls into my lap, I thought I’d thrown it out with the rest of her belongings. The wind catches hold of it, and it takes flight like a kite. A quote from Lauren Bacall pops into my head ‘Imagination is the highest kite that one can fly.’ The napkin descends landing like a shroud over my feet. In that moment of flight, it hit me, I rummage in my bag searching for a mirror. I pull out her compact and remember her giving it me at the end of that mid-summers day when I found her hair in my sandwich and she made me feel guilty. How have I not thrown these items; I must be going senile. I snap open the compact, a cloud of power puffs up and is lost in the sand. I hold the mirror up to check my nose is clean. A face stares back at me, I look behind me and back to the face, it’s still there. I hear a voice shouting.

“I’ve not been myself for forty-five years.”

The words echo like the distant sound of the ocean from a shell held to my ear as a child. Whiffs of salty-seaweed seep into my nostrils with each stuttered breath; brings me to my senses like a dose of smelling salts. I close my eyes and I’m sat at her bed side. Her matt red lips, faded by time and ill health. Her laced skinned left hand lies ringless and flat, dissolving into the white sheet. Her chest clicks as it rises and falls, like a young robin calling for its mother. The click is interrupted by a chilled silence of impending demise. I count the seconds to the next bird call. I’m up to fifteen, click, nothing, click. The silence crashes into my ears, I fill this gap and mute the clicks for help with the brevity of my voice.

Mable, I stopped liking you on the day you made ‘me’ fade. You started the process a month before, but I was too moulded to notice. I was so happy to have a best friend. I was never the popular one, never chosen by the netball captain, or for a last dance at the Town Hall. You brightened the wages department and picked me as your friend. You separated me out from my family like a sheep dog. I took your guilt and you were the shining light that everyone flew to, like moths. You collected moths, to take the pleasure of being wanted and the glory of winning. Mable, I’m quiet for a moment, until I hear the click. Mable, you stole me, you continuously had an answer for why you needed me to stay, if I left, you’d, well, you hinted I would be the one to find you. Charles, you said died in a boating accident. I never mentioned I saw you walking alone from my deckchair on Southport beach, that romantic weekend. Charles was killed a week later. Miss Twist fell down the stairs that lead to the shop floor. It was you who found her. I didn’t tell you I’d left my handbag in the staff restroom that evening and seen you with Miss Twist. You cried crocodile tears at the grave side of Miss Twist. Her family comforted you. A month after the funeral you became Wages Supervisor. I forgot who I was, if anyone asked, I’d say I’m Mabel’s friend.

I hear another click, I count, to a thousand. I have my wish of a deckchair on Southport beach.

Sally has an MA Creative Writing from the University of Leicester. She writes short stories and is currently working on her novel based in 1950s Liverpool. She sometimes writes poetry. She gains inspiration from old photographs, history, her own childhood memories, and is inspired by writers Sandra Cisneros, Deborah Morgan, Liz Berry and Emily Dickinson.

She has had short stories and poetry published in various online publications, including The Ink Pantry and AnotherNorth and in a ebook anthology ‘Tales from Garden Street’ (Comma Press Short Story Course book 2019).

Sally lives in the countryside with her partner, dog, and bantam.

You can find more of Sally’s work here on Ink Pantry.

Pantry Prose: The Man Who Shot Stonewall Jackson by Gary Beck

It happened once before, when I was a young man. The newspapers clamoured for war, self-appointed know-it-alls told us why we had to fight and everyone believed them, especially the youngsters like me who got all fired up to join the army. So now, when those big headlines screamed ‘Remember The Maine,’ there wasn’t any more doubt that there would be war with Spain. And off they went to enlist, just like they were going to a picnic, as irreverent and ignorant as we were back in 1861. My eldest son told me he had to join up and I tried to discourage him. I told him how crazy it was for two groups of men to stand and blaze away at each other, but he wouldn’t listen. All he said was: “War’s not fought that way anymore, Pa .”

So I held my peace and watched him go, like my pa watched me go. When he died of yellow fever, before he even fought in a battle, it was another terrible affliction that I had to accept. But I guess he was right about it being a new kind of war, because it was over pretty quick and we got all these new places; Cuba, Puerto Rico, The Philippines and Guam. I never even heard of Guam. So I kept on farming and doing my chores but I was pretty much empty inside. I had been that way ever since the surrender at Appomattox, which ended my daily suffering, but left me a hollow man. I went through all the motions of the living and tried my best to be a good husband and father, and I never told anyone how I felt. How could anyone who hadn’t been there understand? Sometimes, when I went to town and saw the few old hands who survived the entire war, like me, there was nothing we could say. We just looked at each other for a moment, nodded in recognition that we were still alive and moved on.

Then one day, long after Spain surrendered, I saw a soldier who had just come home from the Philippines. I was buying something in Dahlgren’s general store and his pa brought him in. He had that look that I hadn’t seen since the war with the Yankees. His flesh was sagging on his bones and his uniform hung on him like a scarecrow on a hard luck farm. He walked as if it was a great effort to put one foot after the other. Old Mr. Dahlgren kept prodding him to tell us what it was like over there, but he refused to talk, until his pa urged him. Then he looked at everyone for a moment and said coldly: “You want to know what it was like? I’ll tell you. I watched my buddies die in ambushes, or of tropical diseases, or in battles with savages who just kept coming at us, even after we shot them. I watched my friends butcher women and children!” A look of absolute horror ate his face. “All I saw was death and suffering. Is that what you wanted to hear?” Then he turned and walked out. I couldn’t get him out of my mind the rest of the day.

That night I thought about the war with the Yankees, which I had shut out of my life a long time ago. I remembered how I had rushed to join up that spring of 1861. I ignored Pa when he told me not to go, just like my boy ignored me. Then Pa told me how bad it was when he fought the Mexicans in ‘46, but I didn’t believe him. Everyone I knew was hurrying to the colours and I wasn’t about to be last. We were going to whip the Yankees good, then go back home with our chests full of medals. Once I was in uniform it didn’t take long for me to wake up. Almost half the boys I joined up with got killed or wounded in our first battle at Manassas. Maybe the Yankees finally ran off as fast as they could for Washington D.C., but not before they put up a mighty good fight. We fought up and down Virginia for the next two years and got leaner, hungrier, tireder and sicker. The more we ran out of ammunition, food, or shoes, the more the Yankees kept coming. We learned everything about the horror of soldiering the hard way.

One day we were camped somewhere near Chancellorsville, after a tough battle where we whipped the Yankees good. Of course it wasn’t like when the war first started. Then we knew we were better men then the city folk and immigrants they were going to send against us. Before First Manassas, most of us talked about beating them proper, then going home. If anyone thought it would go on and on for years, they didn’t say it where I heard. Anyhow, we had been resting because it had been a long, hard fight and these Yankees weren’t like the rabbits who used to run when they were beaten. When these Yankees lost, they retreated resentfully and we knew they’d be back. Then the word raced through the camp. Stonewall was dead. Rumours, like disease, travel swiftly in an army, especially when it’s bad news. This hit me and the old hands particularly hard, because we were the 31st Virginia and we were Stonewall’s men from the beginning.

We rushed to colonel Barstow’s tent, but he didn’t know any more than we did. Messengers kept arriving, each one with different news. The only thing they all agreed on was that Stonewall had been shot. The colonel finally got tired of our pushing and shoving at the messengers and he sent us back to our bivouac area. But he promised to let our company commander, lieutenant Rambeau, know as soon as he learned anything. We thanked the colonel, who was one of only three officers left in the regiment who had been with us from the start. All the others had been killed or invalided out. Colonel Barstow had started as a young lieutenant, full of fire and noble speeches. Now he was as old and tired as the rest of us. We snickered about lieutenant Rambeau as we walked. He was a moma’s boy, a blonde-haired stringbean with a mushy face that always looked ready to cry. He had reported to the regiment a few days ago, but he disappeared somehow before the fighting started. The joke going around the camp was who would shoot him first, us or them. Soldiers deserted other regiments before a fight, but not in the 31st Virginia.

We waited for news, but didn’t relax much. A couple of the younger boys babbled about beating the Yankees again, but the old hands quickly shut them up. By now we knew we could beat them and beat them, but they would still keep coming. We were sick, tired, cold and hungry and we didn’t have much hope left. The gossip around the campfire was no longer about victory. A few diehards still kept trying to convince the rest of us that massa Robert and ole Stonewall would find a way to defeat the Yankees. Most of us didn’t buy it. Now Stonewall was dead. One of the kids asked what would happen if General Lee got killed, but an old hand kicked him a few times and the kid slunk off, leaving the rest of us to brood about things. I couldn’t help thinking how lucky that kid was to get off so lightly. We had just lost our father and that dumb kid was talking about losing our grandfather. We didn’t need any more bad luck.

Later that night we found out that Stonewall wasn’t dead, he was just badly wounded. He had been returning from the battlefield in the dark and a nervous sentry, thinking he was a Yankee goblin or something, shot him. After two years of hurry up, then wait, it wasn’t a hardship to wait for news. We lost so many men at Chancellorsville that I guess they forgot about our regiment for a while, so we loafed in our tents. Once we packed up all the dead men’s belongings, they finally remembered us. They even gave us some food, probably pilfered from the Yankees endless supply of everything. Then the word flew around camp faster than wildfire. A new recruit named Billy Rawlins had shot Stonewall. They didn’t rightly know what to do with him, so they sent him home.

After Stonewall died, the war went on and on and the Yankees kept us on the run. When it was finally over, those of us who survived went back to our homes. I was one of the lucky ones. Pa had kept the farm going somehow, despite the voracious armies trampling back and forth across poor, battered Virginia. I had only been home for a couple of months when I heard that the man who shot Stonewall Jackson, Billy Rawlins, had hanged himself. It seems his pa kept telling him that he killed the man who could have won the war for the Confederacy. I guess the damned fool kid must have believed him, because he went into the barn, threw a rope over a beam and ended his life… But that was a long time ago.

I hadn’t thought about Billy Rawlins for many years. Seeing that soldier in Dahlgren’s store reminded me about what had eaten so much of my soul away. It all came back to me from a distance, like hearing a voice on that new telephone invention: the useless waste of young men, the suffering that devastated so many lives, the ease with which we forgot the dead. All I could think of was that if I knew then what I knew now, I could have gone to see Billy. I could have told him that what he did was just one more crazy mistake in a succession of terrible events. That Stonewall couldn’t have won the war. Hell, it was lost way before that. Only fools believed that we could win after the first year or so. The Yankees had everything. We only had pride and courage. Once they wore out our pride, courage just wasn’t enough. But my understanding of things came much too late to help poor Billy. I couldn’t help that trooper who lost his soul in the jungle. And I sure couldn’t help any of the other innocents who don’t start wars, only rush to fight them.

Gary Beck has spent most of his adult life as a theatre director and worked as an art dealer when he couldn’t earn a living in the theatre. He has also been a tennis pro, a ditch digger and a salvage diver. His original plays and translations of Moliere, Aristophanes and Sophocles have been produced Off Broadway. His poetry, fiction and essays have appeared in hundreds of literary magazines and his published books include 21 poetry collections, 7 novels, 3 short story collections and 1 collection of essays. Published poetry books include:  Dawn in CitiesAssault on NatureSongs of a ClerkCivilized WaysDisplaysPerceptionsFault LinesTremorsPerturbationsRude AwakeningsThe Remission of Order and Contusions (Winter Goose Publishing, forthcoming is Desperate Seeker); Blossoms of DecayExpectationsBlunt Force and Transitions (Wordcatcher Publishing, forthcoming are Temporal Dreams and Mortal Coil); and Earth Links will be published by Cyberwit Publishing. His novels include a series Stand to Arms, Marines: Call to Valor and Crumbling Ramparts (Gnome on Pigs Productions, forthcoming is the third in the series, Raise High the Walls); Acts of Defiance and Flare Up (Wordcatcher Publishing), forthcoming is its sequel, Still Defiant); and Extreme Change will be published by Winter Goose Publishing. His short story collections include: Now I Accuse and other stories (Winter Goose Publishing), Dogs Don’t Send Flowers and other stories (Wordcatcher Publishing) and The Republic of Dreams and other essays (Gnome on Pig Productions). The Big Match and other one act plays will be published by Wordcatcher Publishing. Gary lives in New York City.

You can find more of Gary’s work here on Ink Pantry.

Pantry Prose: The Meaning Of Life? Is There One? by Chitra Gopalakrishnan

It took just a few seconds and a knotty brain teaser in class five to awaken me to the potent scent of life’s absurdity. This at a ridiculously young age of ten.

A lion, a goat and a bundle of grass, said my teacher, her face like a shut gate.

A person has to ferry them across the river in a boat. As the boat is tiny, this person can only carry one other alongside.

If the person leaves the lion and the goat alone together, the lion will eat the goat. If the goat and the grass are left together, the goat will eat the grass, my teacher announced.

The glee on her face, the glint in her eyes were unmistakable.

She seemed delighted with the riddle’s cunning as much as on the torture it would inflict on us youngsters in the next hour. Oh, the secret villainies of teachers.

Why on earth would a person want to take these beings along with them, this strange assortment of creatures, in the first place? I thought perplexedly.

This even as something began to spiral within my insides in concentric waves like waves in water. Whatever it was, it was moving round and round and it smelt of sweat, a black reek. It came to me that my teacher’s puzzle was not only stupid, uselessly disturbing and an irrational poser but one that showed up life as senseless.

I lost interest in the puzzle.

Instead, within my head, a series of quick thoughts bubbled.

It came to me that we all live in a closed-looped universe. One that is utterly uncaring of people’s survival. If sitting on a boat with a lion and giving up boundaries was meant to teach us anything it was this.

What’s more, the meaning of the phrase the road to hell is paved with good intentions, something my father used repeatedly, but I never understood, exploded bright and clear at this moment. I mean, if one wants, from the goodness in their heart, to spend time, setting everything aside, in service of a bleating goat, a sabre-toothed lion and a bundle of coarse grass and risk being eaten, butted and stung by tiny insects, then what can I say other than the fact that you have self-deserting instincts.

The fact that schools teach children to think along these lines made me lose respect for this institution.

Surely, you can understand how it must have been for me. A girl who had her head in the clouds suddenly staggered with the truth of life on a normal school day.

It seemed unfair. Rather than pay heed to my age, my girlhood, and start small then tip-toe around a bit to reveal the not-so-appealing truths, these awakenings had got going altogether and gobsmacked me in the face. No warning.

My throat locked up, my stomach was in knots, my body turned sweaty and I felt nauseous. Whatever sense of promise, magic and wonder there was to childhood was shot to hell.

At least to me, at that point, it seemed like it did.

From this point on, for the next two years of my childhood, a kind of boiling high noon set in for me. That’s the best way I can describe my many subsequent stir-ups.

If I began to regularly catch on to the truth that everything in life is pointless, I also began time and again to catch on to another truth: the stupidest thing one can do is look for meaning in life.

Life, in short, I understood, is not all it’s cracked up to be.

I know you will say that at my age growth is meant to be more about gathering physical skills, coordination and muscle control rather than one with huge mental changes. That such odd rhythms are reserved for those hitting puberty, big kids or for grown-ups.

But what can I say other than wisdom happened to me really young.

That I went to bed normal one day and the next day was different.

That, at twelve, I use my glimpses of life’s absurdity as a way to be free. To be myself. To push against rules and directions. To laugh. Yes, and to enjoy life’s senselessness.

That I choose to not carry the lion, goat and a bundle of grass, this forced baggage, to not solve the absurdity of this puzzle, to not be part of this clueless, self-inflicted nonsense, these annoyingly active verbs.

That I am in a happy place, not the sad place I imagined I would be three years ago.

That I am in a place of my own where I need to just carry my flag. And grow as I see fit.

My teacher says I am a ‘young rebel’, my school labels me ‘a misfit’, some of my friends think me ‘an enormously bold girl for saying that there is no meaning to studying or to life itself’ and others ‘weird’.

I do not care much for any of their comments just for the fact that life is easier for me when I refuse to take things around me, joy and sadness, success and failure, loss and gain, personally.

Far too many things happen during a day, even during an hour, a week, a month, a year. One can fool oneself to believe they have meaning or a certain pattern but wait for something unexpected to happen then you know the opposite is true.

I have found a place of comfort between the universe and I.

It’s time for my friends get to their best living experience by setting out on their own adventures. Like nomads.

Their awakenings may be vastly different from mine yet it would have equal merit for it would be their truth.

Some might understand life to be sensible, reasonable. Full of colour, rich with promise, plump with rewards.

Others may find their awakenings to be frighteningly different.

I say it’s okay to let go of the normal, sometimes. For, after all, the definition of normal keeps changing. And really there is no one definition of it.

Chitra Gopalakrishnan, a New Delhi-based journalist and a social development communications consultant uses her ardour for writing, wing to wing, to break firewalls between nonfiction and fiction, narratology and psychoanalysis, marginalia and manuscript and tree-ism and capitalism.

Pantry Prose: The Real Homecoming of Mahua by Sunil Sharma

Dusk came rapidly, sliding over the rugged terrain in a few minutes, and settled down unobtrusive, like a curled-up cat. A cold wind, dagger-sharp, blew down the ragged hills, far-off, silhouetted against a darkened sky.

The rude camp was lit up by the open fires. Families sat around the open kitchens, awaiting a modest meal. Treetops swayed drunkenly in the wind. The camp was filled with smoke and the confused sounds of dogs and humans. Kids laughter trailed, punctuated by the crackle of the burning wood, the sound of the powerful wind that ruffled up the carpet of fallen-leaves in its wake.

Evenings are pleasantly cold in October. The gloom spreads out, blurring the edges of the hills, trees and the huts in the distance. All around trembles darkness-mellow, translucent and anonymous. Families huddle together and talk in low voices. A sad lonely night. A general depression grips the adults in the camp. The men watch the evenings and the early nights. The tarpaulin-n-sheet tents shiver in a rogue wind and a threatening gloom. They revive memories of a nightmare.

The rough shelters going up in crimson-hued flames, giant flames, hungry hissing leaping. The night sky filled up with the dancing inferno. Columns of smoke, spiraling up, stinging and choking and irritating. Within an hour, everything is burnt down, charred, beyond recognition. Angry ambers sizzling in the blackened earth, some stunted singed slender shoots moving obscenely in the air. The government trucks, 48 hours later, arriving and ferrying the wretched of the earth to a camp 12 km away, on an uneven ground, dumped as human garbage. Press, politicians, police-the same story, covering the quick “rehab” of the poor gypsies on the outskirts of Delhi, the capital of India, in an improvised camp, where these victims of the communal violence were assured of protection and meals by the state. The small tribe did not have any choice and stuck together as frightened children in the compound of the old building, watched by the cops; the outside civilization hostile towards these nomads, always on the move….

The government camp brings its own brand of solidarity among the survivors of the carnage. Folks unite and bond easily. Neighbours discover lost virtues. It becomes a large family, under a threat from an unseen force. As the evening advances stealthily, they discover the absence of Mahua, a de facto leader.

Where is he?

The men, in twos and threes, search the camp, nearly patch of forest, the far-off highway. The kids run across the camp, looking for Mahua, their uncle.

They could not find him anywhere.

Where is he?

Women got concerned. Men were anxious. Children remembered. The 80-year-old, strong as a bull, trim as a bamboo; the man was the best storyteller in the tribe and a respected senior. He would listen to their complaints and settle disputes. Play with the kids. Protect them as a grandpa. He told the ill-clad, barefoot, pot-bellied, swollen faced kids the story of the fish and the giant.

“You want a story, children?” he often asked the children.

“Y-e-e-s-sss!” they would shout happily.

“OK. Here it goes.” And he would begin in a rich voice, “Listen… Once upon a time, a giant lived in a castle. Interested?”


“The castle was near the river. The huge river flowed ceaselessly. The giant fish floated in the river. Two big trees-as big as the castle-took roots near the steep bank of the river. The trees grew and reached the topmost roof of the golden castle. The giant did not like this, he being jealous. One day he cut down the trees and burnt them in his fireplace. The smoke filled up the sky.

The big fish coughed up and said, “Selfish giant, selfish giant”.

The giant heard this and trapped the fish in his golden net.

“What did you say?” asks the one-eyed giant.

“Selfish,” says the fish.

“How?” he asks.

“You killed the trees.”

The giant smiles. “I am going to eat you up now.”

The fish smiles and says, “You kill me and you kill yourself.”

“Oh, foolish fish! Nobody can kill a giant.”

“Oh, foolish giant! You are ignorant. First you kill the innocent trees… then you kill me. You will die. I put a curse upon you!”

The giant laughed and killed the fish and ate up the hapless fish.

Then, you know, what happened, dear children?”

“No, Uncle!” the kids said in chorus, sitting under the banyan tree. “Tell us, please!”

“OK. The giant died soon.” Mahua said with a long sigh.


“The curse wiped away the trees and dried up the river. The sands of the desert were waiting like a hungry wolf. They swallowed up his golden castle and a bald famished one-eyed giant in it.”


The men were moving in groups. Someone said Mahua was sitting sad and lonely throughout the last night and the full day. He remembered his grandchildren often who were the victims of an earlier violence. Above all, he remembered the place where we all had lived as a community. He had stopped speaking and grown sad and very quiet. Then somebody said, Mahua often talked of the huge banyan tree and his rude tent nearby, on the rising ground, where he had spent his last many years as a wandering worker.

His life was tough!

They all agreed. Two sons who drank themselves to death. Grandchildren charred to death. Daughters-in-law dead. Only Mahua lived on. He spent mornings fashioning iron tongs and hammers, afternoons hawking them in the small town divided by invisible borders and hatreds, evenings under the towering banyan tree, home to birds and souls of the dead. Camp life he never liked. The fenced-off area, away from his humble, makeshift hovel, put him off. He roamed the camp like a ghost, chatting up with the kids. Then he had gradually shut up within. He refused food. He did not talk. He just stared at the distant space, oblivious of the crowd near him, thinking of his home.

The poor soul! He just caved in!

How long can you suffer poverty, loneliness and soul-destroying pain?

Where is he?

Some younger women; the tea vendor at the highway; late-returning farmers confirmed seeing Mahua. He was walking like mad, striding down the highway, deaf to their greetings. He walked briskly like a guy possessed. He looked fixedly ahead, mumbling to himself, gesturing. The poor thing! The neighbours had cooked food for him but he had refused. Even kids could not coax a story out of the grey-bearded old man. He sat near the tent, under the yellowing sun and a warm wind, wrapped up in tight knots inside himself. Nobody dared disturb.

Towards afternoon, he saw a kid and said softly, “Where were you, Raj Kumar?”

The kid said, “I am Ramu, son of Itbari Lal.”

“No, you are Raj Kumar. My lost grandson. You always play pranks on me. Where have you been? I missed you awfully. Look, your grandpa has become so old, without you. Now, do not leave me. Come on, my son, come here!”

The kid, scared stiff, ran away. A young man, later in the day, saw him talking to air, calling out the names of his dead sons and his stray dog. He was talking to them softly, complaining about his falling health, recalling happy old days when they all lived together. Others said they overheard him talking about his hovel near the banyan tree, the open ground, the wind and the stars. He seemed to be trapped in the narrow, dusty, small and crowded camp. He did not like it at all. His home was beckoning him. That small patch of rough ground and that enormous banyan tree and the open sky.

Where is he now?

Ten-twelve men, young and strong, reached the vast ground where the nomads and other city migrants had lived for last many years. They carried torches and stout sticks. A large moon was shining in the sky. Stars were twinkling like heavenly lamps in the clear sky. The wind, cold and powerful, was moaning in the trees and shrubs that ran along the highway, pulsating like an overfed snake. The ground was deserted. A month or so had passed after the carnage. There was death lingering in the damp stale air coming off the river, a mile away, in the background. Smell of death, decay and burnt hovels! An eerie silence prevailed. The banyan tree stood tall and massive against a milky background. The deep silence was unsettling. The white moon had washed up the desolate wild landscape in silvery smooth light. The rising ground, the puddles formed on account of last night’s sudden heavy downpour, the wild grass and one or two surviving small Neem trees all looked deathly pale or unreal. The solitary ground was now a graveyard of mutilated, bloody memories. They negotiated the puddles, the weeds, the sharp-edge stones and other deadwood, and, reached the foot of the big banyan tree.

“He is dead!” someone said.

“Yes. He was crying before his death.”

“It seems he was praying and crying at the same time. He seems to have died some time back. We should burry him here.”

The old, wizened, bearded face showed peace and tears dried up.

The man finally had found home.

The wind howled, the moon showed a quivering and cold and desolate vast ground over run with weeds and garbage.

And then fluffy clouds suddenly eclipsed the moon, sending the whole bitter landscape into darkness.

Dr. Sunil Sharma is a Toronto-based author-academic-editor who has published 23 creative and critical books— joint and solo. He is, among others, a recipient of the UK-based Destiny Poets’ inaugural Poet of the Year award 2012. His poems were published in the prestigious UN project: Happiness: The Delight-Tree: An Anthology of Contemporary International Poetry, in the year 2015.

You can find more of Sunil’s work here on Ink Pantry.