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Joey Fitzpatrick joey 2

Our reviewer for the July Writing Challenge was Joey Fitzpatrick, a Halifax-based writer, recently retired from The Chronicle Herald. He can be reached at dukeyboat@hotmail.com

For the moment that’s as much of a profile as he has offered. However, on closer examination it is learnt that he was until recently an Editor at the provincial newspaper and is experienced in traditional and online journalism, newspaper writing, feature writing, story telling, creative writing and editing among a host of other skills. He has provided our entrants with much-appreciated feedback.

The choices for the writing challenge for July-August were as follows:

– Describe the last nightmare you had.

– People must not look outside at night from 3 AM to 6 AM. Children are often kept in windowless rooms and adults often wear blindfolds during sleep to avoid incident.

– The evil super villain and the hero are siblings. They still have dinner at Mom and Dad’s house for the holidays.

– It seemed like a good idea yesterday…

– Nobody else is awake.

– Write a story that will make me afraid of the dark.

– Write a story that starts with a word you pick out of the dictionary at random – in this case please state the word in the prompt line.

I am delighted to report that we had eight entries. And here are the stories in the order received.

A Believable Nightmare

by Noor AlNoaimi

Describe the last nightmare you had. (This is not the last nightmare though.)

We were instructed to stay inside, but we never listened to anything they said. They; my aunts and mother, women like children, were ordered to do the same and so did not merit any of our youthful respect. I recall the vision in a blur of grey and sand. The TV was unreadable, an old 80’s model that failed to catch any signals and provide much entertainment, so we sought to entertain ourselves. It wasn’t the best of times, Kuwait and Iraq were at war and thus we were told that the air outside still contained the sickening fragrance of the offshore missiles. We sneaked out of a window in the corner room anyway. The windows were sealed, and we had to pry the tape off in order to escape- My cousins and I. There were three of us attempting our rebellious adventure- None of us really understood what war was, but it did not look good. Nobody acted like themselves, and instead started talking about people we never heard of- a name did reoccur, I think he had a ‘Bush’ of some sort.

I saw my cousins grinning below me, motioning for me to follow which I excitedly did- We barely reached the main gate then, for suddenly my eldest cousin stopped, his gaze towards a khaki colored jeep filled with people. I don’t know why, but we were all afraid of them- The men inside were armed, their countenance did not look friendly when it met ours, and I did not think they were beyond shooting us where we stood.

I heard my uncle’s voice then, I don’t remember what he said but I recall his tone, he was so fierce- we children imagined him transforming before our eyes into a dangerous lion, Instead he drew a gun- I did not see it initially- but he shot it, not towards them but to the sky. We’ve been momentarily struck deaf by it’s after effects despite the good distance between us and his weapon. I watched as the jeep fled leaving behind clouds of dust, and my uncle; giving us a good whiff of what our aunts meant about the smell of war.

I never really understood that dream, and I wish I could remember what my uncle said to them- We were very young during the war, but even so- Our sleep was still disturbed by it.

By the Lake

by Shalini Vaghjee
It seems like a good idea yesterday…

During summer holidays, we always went to my grandmother’s house far from the hustle and bustle of the city. That year, things were quite different though. I had lost my grandmother and my father just few months Earlier… But I knew that I had to take a break to that house where we have been spending our summer for the last nineteen years…

My mother would come a bit later with my sister and her newborn baby girl. Mixed feelings from the intense sadness of the loss of my father and grandmother but a deep joy for my sister who’s dream came true in the form of this angel she recently gave birth too… How happy dad and grandma would have been…
I took the train and then walked through the forest as we did in the past. But somehow the forest looked denser and even the house looked further away… Finally I saw the beautiful cottage next to the blue lake. I felt happy and all the tiredness vanished away… I ran to the house… Oh! Grandma was not here anymore to welcome me with her huge hug, so I took out the keys and opened the door…

As I entered, beautiful memories of giggling and the nice aroma of grandmas favorite pie came to me. The house had been closed since grandma fell unwell and moved to our place in the city for her treatment. The house desperately needed a good make over and I decided to dust and clean the house as our newborn princess would be here for her fist visit. I opened all the windows to let the fresh air and beautiful sunshine in. Then I went to fetch water from the lake, cleaned the house and two hours later, the sun was down. I had some sandwich which I brought and then crawled on the couch and fell asleep.

Few hours later, I suddenly woke up and wondered where I was. Of course I’m in grandma’s house, nothing to worry. But something felt awkward. I looked outside to see the dark night with hardly any stars. This was very rare.. Could it be cloudy? But the sky was blue during the day and here it had never rained during summer. Something was weird. I switched on the lights and to my dismay, blood was oozing out from my skin. I tried to rub my arms and body. But more blood continued oozing out. I felt something crawling on me, clinging to my skin and at times I felt being stung by something, but nothing invisible. On my head, in my nose, my ears…  And the blood kept oozing out… I stood on a puddle of blood, my own blood. I was breathless and even though I wanted to shout for help, I knew this was in vain. There were no neighbors for some kilometers and no one ever came on this side. Then I realized that these tiny insects were coming from the window and they clang to the skin to suck the blood out. These insects were microscopic and could be detected by the rays of light only. I desperately tried to close the window but again in vain. Looks like an army of their kind had held the window and I could not close them no matter how hard I tried. I felt dizzy, I did not know what to do, who to call. Then I remembered one of my friends who stayed nearby and quickly sent her a message. My throat was choking, so calling would not be appropriate. But I did let some missed calls on her phone. Then I fainted…

Two days later, I opened my eyes in the hospital. My body was bandaged and I was given an intravenous blood drip. I still felt a bit dizzy but I badly needed to know what happened… There were police officers, forest guards as well as my mother were waiting for me to open my eyes. We learnt that these insects were always in the forest but they never did any harm to people or even animals. However, recently  some bully teenagers came in the area and they destroyed the underground habitat of these tiny insects. These were inevitably enraged and since then they started attacking men and animals. Once they attack someone, they left the body only when all the blood had oozed out. These insects did not depend on blood nor they like human flesh. They did it only as a revenge to what these teenagers had done to their family. We learnt that they came only at night and windows need to remain shut, not like earlier… I guess opening the window at night to enjoy fresh air seems like a good idea yesterday… But not anymore…

Forever

by Mike Rollins

Nobody else is awake in this dark half of the world but we two, it seems, as I sit beside his bed through the hours that God forgot. And then there is only me.

I rang my brother as early as I thought fair, and he knew as soon as he heard my voice.

“When did he… go?” John couldn’t bring himself to say die. Guilt? I don’t know, but they had not spoken for more than two years now. And John had been Dad’s favourite. But I was the one who had been looking after him: Living with the rages and the stony silences; putting the fires out; apologising for his behaviour.

“One this morning. I didn’t see any point in waking you. It’s not like it was an emergency.”

*

I had no idea at the time what it was that caused the rift between them. They had always got on well. Dad was hardest on the eldest: You guessed it. He never hit me though. He would ground me, take away my stuff. He once burned my football boots because I made the girl next door cry. I couldn’t believe it: I didn’t make her ugly, I just confirmed it for her.

Mum had died when we were young boys. I barely remember her. She is just a presence that lingers in a certain room at a certain time. There and gone. I grew up thinking that Dad hated the world because she died, until at fourteen I saw him through the partly opened door of his bedroom, holding a picture of her and crying like a child; noiseless sobs that were all liquid sighs and short breaths. I realised then that he was a mean bastard because of love, which made it easier to understand. It didn’t make him any easier to live with.

*

Our fight at the funeral might have been less of a spectacle if it had been a cremation, and if it hadn’t been raining for three days.

It started as the coffin was being lowered. I happened to murmur, ”And don’t come back.” I know; not the nicest thing to say, but my life had been hell these past few years, looking after him with no real respite… I suppose it just all welled up in me right there, right then.

John swung at me, missing my jaw as he slipped on the mud and hitting me on the shoulder. I had been wanting to smack him one for a long time and got in a good one as he skidded past me. Up on his feet, covered in mud, he charged at me. We tumbled into the hole and Dad’s coffin broke beneath us, the cheap wood splintering.

We lay there in Dad’s grave, the rain pelting down on us, the funeral party staring,, as silent as they’d been during the service. John’s body suddenly convulsed above me, starting to shake: I thought he was crying. I was wrong. He raised his head, rolling on to his side, and I saw that he was laughing; laughing so hard that tears were mingling with the rain and the mud streaking his face.

That started me off. We lay there and howled our laughter at the grey sky.

As we walked across the stone garden, John leaned into me. “I stopped speaking to him when he found out I was having an affair. He was so disappointed in me, James; I couldn’t look him in the eye. It was over in a few weeks but I just couldn’t face him.”

*

We went for a drink later and talked about how much we loved Dad.

Nobody Else Is Awake

by Preeti Rana

Nobody else is awake.

It’s the chirping of the birds as always.

They hold up the dawn by their beaks. For me. Close to the window so I can see better. I can see better. I am so close. To the pane.

Something about the night has remained both sides. One side my breath frosts the warm glass. On the other side, I see bits of grass on the sill. The night wore green too. Or the bulbul must have stopped construction to peer in.

A laden cloud has rubbed the scent of rain against our window.

The breeze blows nothing new. Today holds the same as all the recent yesterdays. I must go. I need to change. The way you look at me. That look that you know. But won’t tell, spells difficult words. All the plans I’ve been whispering to you. You barely nod anymore.

Once before you looked at me that way. All those years back. And I hadn’t cared. Unbound by you knowing. I was so young. At heart. He had leaned across, hadn’t he, in the light of our dinner table, to listen. To me speak. He pushed aside my careful narrative with all my references of you, family, kids. With that deep hooded look. It doesn’t matter who you are, he had said. What matters is what you want to be.

Maybe he never said it. It could have been all me. Imagining those sparkling eyes as telling.

But they were intoxicating thoughts, worded, imagined. They held me those years. As if by my waist. Carrying me over hills and valleys and I saw views from impossible mountain peaks. You wouldn’t tell me I had gone insane. You hid every mirror that could reflect the insanity in my eyes. Thank God, I began to paint. Everyone, so relieved they had my art to politely applaud. Draw attention away from my madness. You made sure I never ran out of sheets and paints.

I see that night. Me sitting by this window. In my paint splattered apron. It was the first time in a long while you saw my tears roll. Form and roll. Instead of asking what the matter was you said to me “come back to bed”.

As if you didn’t need to ask. I told you I want to leave, that night. “I cannot stay or function around you”. Oh, I said that, didn’t I. You held my hand and took me back to bed. Tucked me closer to you. Held me till I slept.

He was gone. Long gone. Like any passer-by. Or a traveller, leaving behind things he didn’t need.

Or they would have come back for it.

I kept them in poems and aquarelles. But he was gone from it all. What remained held only me.

You almost knew my story. One talks about leaving to those who stay close forever. ‘I don’t love you’ are words said to those you do. It tore my heart as I said it. And you only attended to my wound. I love you. My darling.

You never left my side.

Even today it’s me who has left yours. I must return to you. Jaan. Jaan. Why can’t you hear me? Wake up. This glass. How do I return, how can I get back in. Why can’t you hear me? I’m cold again. I long for our warm bed. The way I fit in your embrace.

I am in a fall. Falling from this height is a flight. There is a fierce velocity against my flesh. No. My bones. No. Against me. I am dissolving. I see a chasm form between us. It spreads like an ink blot, my love.

You still hold my hand. Head back and asleep in my reading chair.

The babies we made on the sofa, that rug.

Asleep under the blanket of morrows. Surrounded by your books. Under our roof. Oh, look at her. Isn’t she lovely. Her heart will crush into a million pieces as this sun rises. No one would see the mosaic lines. Except us. The lightest blow could make it crumble. And she’ll build a fierce protective shell. Oh, let the heart chip with use my darling. Tell her that. Tell her now. Oh, I should have.

And look at him. Our crown prince. You have taught him to resolve with restrain. At the eighteenth hole, when he thinks no one is watching I know he will cry. And there will be no one to wipe his tears. Oh, my gentle boy. Hold him till he cries on your shoulder. Hold him now.

I wish I could breathe just one more breath.

It’s late yet only now I am awake.

Nobody Else is Awake

by Renjith P Sarada

Nobody else is awake”, that was the thought which crossed my mind intermittently when I was lying on the bed, awaiting the Goddess of Sleep to bless.

“Am I the only person who is awake in the midst of darkness at this point in time?”

“Why am I unable to sleep despite a long and tiring walk a few hours ago?”

“Why am I bereft of the much-needed five-letter word, ‘sleep’?”

“Why nobody else is awake?”

A chain of questions radiated out of my head and persuaded me to find out the corresponding answers. But, I was clueless.

I looked at the wall clock. I could barely see the time despite the fussy night lamp. The time was around two in the morning.  Felt glad to know that the night lamp, like me, was also awake – perhaps beseeching the goddess’ blessings.

I stared at my wife who was sleeping like a baby. I felt jealous.

“When would I be able to sleep like this?”, I pondered. I tried my best to contain the fact that one can sleep serenely along with another person who is deprived of it – both, under the same roof.  I got off the bed and switched on the fluorescent lamp, with a deliberate intention to disturb the sleeping beauty. After an inaudible grumble, she turned towards the other side of the light and resumed her slumber.

Let me elucidate further. I have got nothing to do with insomnia or sleeplessness or any kind of jargons indicating a sleep-deprived condition, from a medical standpoint.

What has taken the sleep out of me was a recent comment made by someone who or what shouldn’t have been of any concern to me.    Because, the “someone” being referred here is someone who is a friend of my son’s classmate’s neighbour.

I was meeting him for the first time in my life – that too during a wedding reception of someone else who was equally far from me in all aspects.   As a courtesy, I was introduced to this “someone” by my son’s classmate’s father as we all happened to share the same dining table.

Being strangers to each other, this “someone” had no business to comment on something which was very personal.   Because, that off-the-cuff comment of his, which he might have thought as a casual pleasantry was strong enough to take my sleep away for a couple of days thereafter.

Is this your son?” – even a blind person had once told about the striking resemblance between my son and myself – but not sure of the mannerisms and/or thoughts whether they match perfectly. Though I was vexed by his opening shot, I nodded with an affirmative answer without showing any displeasure.

The next was the googly (in cricket terminology) which snatched my sleep away.

“Was it a late marriage?”.

 “What”?, I grimaced, but asked myself. On hearing the unprecedented question posed by “someone”, the person who introduced me also started to turn pale – reminding me of the litmus test which I had learnt during my high school days.

“What he had to do with my marriage – if it had happened later or earlier?”,  I wondered.   In a fraction of a second, I could make out where he was coming from.   I recollected that he was looking at my more-salt-less-or-almost-no pepper hair while talking to me.

To speak the truth, he was far better than many others from a diplomatic perspective. I recall many who put it straight at my face asking why am I not “dyeing” (in proper contextual meaning, and not in the meaning of its rhyme, of course).

“Oh! I hate anything artificial. Moreover, I am dead against dyeing. Scientifically, you know, the chemicals used in dye making are hazardous……”, I smiled and changed the topic towards some current affairs – both national and international.

Bringing my thoughts back, I looked at the mirror and stared at the reflection of my head.

“True, my head has become very rich – from black metal to silver”.

 I was tempted, but stood confused – whether to dye or not to dye!  

 Because, I knew it was not at all going to be an easy game for me to get into the habit of dyeing, as I had been a strong anti-dyeing advocate, at home. Many a time, I had efficaciously argued against my wife and other people who either supported or sported dyeing. And throughout the debate, for the sake of it, I used to give lectures on the drastic side effects of dyeing based on true or untrue scientific reasons and also throwing “gyan” on made up stories about people in far away countries who lost hair and complexion due to excessive dyeing. The demography of these protagonists were ideally chosen to avoid any follow up by the opponents, especially my wife who is an expert in using Google and making use of other reliable sources.

I sat down at the corner of the bed, contemplating.

Then, I decided.  Yes, I decided to swim against the tide – but on a safer route.   I wished not to be paraded by those who were put paid to my arguments whenever they see me with glossy black/brown hair.

Before executing the plan, I prepared my own points justifying as to why I changed my mind and started dyeing. Having convinced, I concluded that there is nothing wrong in my decision. I had been voicing against dyeing, or rather against applying “artificial” colors and paints – definitely not henna.   So, nobody would have the guts to blame me for violating my argument points or call me a hypocrite if I do a henna treatment on my hair. Moreover, henna is natural.

I remembered spotting henna powder in the ‘things to buy’ list a week back, but was unsure whether it was bought and if so, whether it was black or brown. Without making much noise, I rummaged around my wife’s vanity bag. Thankfully, I could get hold of a packet of powdered henna – and that too, having the label ‘100% Natural Henna”.

For a systematic execution, I came out to the TV room where the lighting was better than bedroom. I read the instructions on the pack many times to ensure that I am not doing any mess-up with my hair, consequently affecting my face.  I looked at the list of ingredients mentioned – all were written in biological names – felt quite agnostic, but were solid enough to substantiate my justification.

“Soak the powder for 4 to 6 hours and then after applying the paste on hair, leave on for 3 to 4 hours”.

I looked at the clock. The time was almost three.

 “Oh! my God!   If I go by the instructions word-by-word, the process would not be completed even by lunch time the next day”, I thought.

Not thinking any further of pros and cons, I cut opened the packet, made up the henna paste with utmost confidentiality by getting in to the bathroom. In line with the instructions, I added a few drops of vinegar to get some highlighting. After the mixing was done, I sadly realized that I had partially tanned the wash basin by spilling the colourful paste inadvertently! I feared of the consequences that are bound to happen the next morning, when the sleeping beauty gets up.   I sprung into action to clean the bathroom at half past three – something I had never done in all these donkey years!! What a plight at night!

I waited patiently in the bathroom itself, for the paste to set in.    Feeling bored, I came back to the bedroom and lied down beside my wife without disturbing her sleep. Moreover, I wanted to give her a surprise the next day morning by posing a different look and feel!  I envisioned my potential appearance, and how everybody would be complimenting me for the new look. After waiting impatiently for an hour, I examined the paste and confirmed that the same is good to go.

“Goodness!, There are no hand gloves available. If I use my hands, I would end up like an Indian bride aftter a Mehendi/Henna ceremony”.

As a stopgap arrangement, I made use of a plastic carry bag – transformed it to a hand glove, applied the henna with much enthusiasm (like how the floors of traditional houses were coated with cow dung during pre-technological era).

I saw my reflection on the mirror – I looked ugly – which I presumed as a precursor to the imminent handsomeness.   After applying henna on the head, I covered it using the same carry bag and tied it with a rubber band.   Due to lack of experience, I could not paste adroitly thereby spoiling the bathroom floor.   I sprung into action again – cleaning the bathroom, the second time in a span of two hours.

After the cumbersome exercise, I found it prudent not to get out of the bathroom thereby spoiling the floor of bedroom too, because I had no fascination to do cleaning any more.

I decided to stay put in the bathroom. As I had nothing else to do, I read all my pending official mails on the phone. Feeling discomfort, I decided to forget all the instructions and clean off the hair without waiting for even an hour.   I was unsure about the henna stains while washing as I did not wish to clean the bathroom for the third time in a row.  So, I took off a trickle from the head, put it on the floor and confirmed no stains remained when I washed it off with running water.

Good to go !

I took off the carry bag from the head, opened the shower and stood underneath. The colors washed off from my head through my face. I felt breathless for a while, but managed to finish the shower quickly.

Anxiously, I looked at the bathroom mirror.

“Awesome!”    All the white strands on the hairs had vanished.   I looked much younger. I came off the bathroom, dried my hair and combed it with perfection.

Oh! my God!”   I looked at the mirror again after switching on all the available lights.

I literally screamed.

This reflex of mine awakened my wife who got up from her sleep with a jolt, screaming likewise. I got a shock of my life and that made me scream again.

She looked at my face helplessly.

“What is this?? What have you done with your hair??”

Shame! I looked like a peacock, with only brown feathers. My head had turned completely brown as if my head was varnished.   I didn’t know what to do. As I lacked expertise to reverse the wrongdoing, I kept quiet.   I knew that I would be a laughing stock in the office if I go in this peacock design!

I asked my wife to suggest a remedy before the day breaks. She told me that the only quick and effective choice left was to use a black dye to cover up the brown shade – but she was unsure whether the henna stains would remain or not.

I envisaged as to how I would be in my office attire the next morning – white shirt, blue trousers, black & brown hair.

“No way! Its ridiculous. It is against my ethics. Moreover, the dye is having lot of chemicals ….”. With a typical facial expression, I was stopped abruptly by my wife handing over a sachet of black dye, which obviously contained artificial colors and chemicals.

Hesitantly, I applied the dye, waited for another hour, washed it off and came out of the bathroom – just to find my wife sleeping calmly as if nothing had happened.

I looked at the mirror.

“Not bad! Yes, I am looking much younger. Why was I against this magic all these years?”

I felt like singing a romantic song in my rough voice.

Luckily, nobody else was awake.

 “Nightmares?”

by Michelle Schultz

The last nightmare I had involved eating out at one of my favorite coffeeshops. My husband and I had arranged to meet with friends I hadn’t seen in a while the week before, so I had been looking forward to it. Our schedules didn’t often mesh with work taking my husband or our friends late into the evening with no warning, so it was a pleasant surprise that everyone was able to come and no one had to cancel at the last minute.

As I had come to expect, the coffee was wonderful: nutty, earthy, or faintly floral depending on the type that I chose. The desserts were hopelessly decadent but large enough to share, so share we did. The subdued music piped through the speakers upstairs covered any silences in the conversation, but I had plenty to discuss with these lovely individuals. We talked of everything except politics; we’d all had enough of that cropping up in our Facebook feeds. I learned that one of my friends was taking vacation soon, and another was strongly considering adopting a cat. As I was always eager to talk with other cat people, I made a note to ask in the coming days if the adoption had worked out.

I only knew two hours had passed because of my watch. It was almost ten at night by the time we had to call it a night. Time had flown, leaving me with that disorienting feeling I get when I’ve stopped focusing so much on making charming small talk and worrying about the next interesting thing I’m going to say. Instead I just let the conversation take me where it wanted, and it had gone beautifully.

I drove us home, the windows down to let the humid air make enough of a breeze to cool me. For a summer night, it was surprisingly pleasant. Maybe I was adapting to the climate here after all.

Given the hour, my husband and I only took a few minutes to pet the cats before readying for bed. It was quiet in the house, and the neighbors in the houses on either side were somnolent as well. You would hardly know anyone else lived in our compound given how peaceful it could be at night.

I lay down in bed, tired enough in a pleasant way from so much conversation, that I didn’t need to read like I usually did before going to sleep. My books were safe on the nightstand as I turned to study the insides of my eyelids instead. I felt the familiar bump as one of our cats bumped my feet before settling down to sleep on one ankle. I could feel his purr in my bones as I drifted asleep.

I blinked awake minutes or hours later. The room was dark, no curtains cracked like I used to do. My feet were cold and devoid of cats.

I turned my head, barely able to make out our dark pillows against the pale bedspread, but my husband’s pillow was empty. He must have gotten up to use the toilet and woken me. I rearranged my pillow and turned over, waiting for him to come back because he’d only wake me up again if I fell asleep.

The silhouettes on the other side of the bed were wrong. I realized that his side of the bed was neat, as if it was still made up. How odd for him to make the bed when he was coming right back.

I sat up and shook the cobwebs out of my head. I leaned forward, half-climbing out of bed to look down the hallway outside the door.

It was as dark and lightless as our bedroom.

No water ran in the bathroom, no whir came from the fan running, and no one stubbed their toe in the dark as they came back to bed.

The room was suddenly too quiet. The lack of sound was like an annoying buzz in my ears, static to fill in the empty spaces that was far too loud once you could sense it.

My husband hadn’t been home for weeks. Work had taken him out of the country, and he was supposed to have been home this week, but those things often changed.

How had I forgotten? What a bizarre, utterly mundane dream to leave me so confused. It was just like last year after my aunt died, when I dreamed of talking to her on the phone only to wake up and realize that the memory of that conversation wasn’t real.

Had I even met with our friends tonight? I strained to recall, but their faces were a blur. I couldn’t remember where we had gone. I couldn’t even tell whether I had met my husband’s coworkers or my friends from church. What had we talked about? Babies? The news? Those things were always coming up in conversation, but nothing seemed familiar.

My imagination must be having a rough time if this was the best dream it could come up with: uneventful conversations with people I already knew in which nothing changed. My muses must be bored. I should make a note to read some more interesting books.

I reset my phone to play nature sounds and lay back down to sleep.

I had a meeting that morning for the monthly women’s gossip session, or at least, that was how I thought of it. Ostensibly it couldn’t all be about women since men could come too, but most often, only women showed up to share what workout they were currently obsessed with because it was the greatest thing ever invented and solved their myriad, highly specific, and trendy health problems when combined with this very particular diet tailored to their genetic heritage, their environment, and the supplements available to them in this location.

I drank black coffee given my bad sleep the night before and sat on the fringes of the latest group to convert to cross-fit/Paleo, or was it Paleo/yoga? Were those regimens even compatible? It didn’t matter. I knew enough vagaries to talk about either if someone asked my opinion. It wasn’t important that I share my experiences so much as ask more about theirs. It was the same with babies: ask the moms questions because deep down, they don’t want to talk about you. Nobody does.

Once my requisite hour was up socializing with the other ladies, I left the room with a excuse about needing to get to my errands. I promised to meet some of them later that week for coffee or lunch so we could discuss the work that we had originally met up to talk about.

I called my husband/rescuer once I got out of sight and asked where he was. Fortunately, he had just finished up some paperwork and was free to drive me home given the heat outside.

I had to wait outdoors so I didn’t run into any of the ladies I had just abandoned, and the heat made me sleepy by the time my husband’s car appeared. On the way home, I just closed my eyes to block out the sun.

When I opened them, it was dark and I was lying down.

I flinched, kicking out and catching only bedcovers. Bedcovers?

I turned my head to get my bearings, but it was as dark as the inside of a black hole and probably just as quiet… unless planets or comets screamed as they were crushed to death, in which case it was probably as noisy as that pregnant silence that filled my ears like a wasp humming.

Once I realized it was my pillow under my head, I almost smiled in relief.

Wow, the muses really were dying of boredom. Now I was being treated to reruns of the last year of my attempts to socialize with other ladies before ultimately giving that up. With only slight variations, that dream could have been any one of a year’s worth of pointless coffees and lunches.

“Sorry,” I said just to break up the quiet as I turned over. I reached out to poke my husband’s shoulder and apologize for probably waking him up with my kicking about.

The shapes were all wrong.

His side of the bed was made up, which was odd. Why would he waste the time if he was coming right back to bed? Had he gone to pick up one of our cats as he sometimes did if he heard it meowing in the hall?

The silence in the room became the slow grinding of gears as my brain caught up with the rest of me.

My husband had been gone for over a month. There was no one here or in the hall.

I flinched anew. Why did this feel so familiar?

Wait, hadn’t I already had this dream? Or a dream? Hadn’t it too been utterly normal, as if I was spending time with friends or acquaintances that used to live here?

My phone hadn’t rung in days if not weeks. No one was calling me to arrange dinner with my husband and me. I hadn’t gone to a ladies’ meeting in over a year.

I lay back down after glancing at the clock. I still had hours to sleep.

“Did you bring the game?” my friend asked as I entered his apartment.

“It couldn’t be anything else in a box this big,” I said, hefting the giant bag holding my favorite card game and one I was eager to teach this group. “I didn’t have time to cook—“

“That’s okay. We were just going to order in this time,” my friend interrupted, closing the door behind me. “Have a seat. Coffee’s in the kitchen, beer’s in the fridge, take what you will.”

“Thanks,” I said as I set the box with the others at the table. I looked around at the familiar faces without being able to put names to any of them. My memory for faces was pretty bad when I’d only met them once, so this was normal enough.

I sat down.

“Hi, everyone,” I said, grinning although it felt a little manic. “I… um, I wanted to show you all my favorite game, the one you asked about last time.”

“Sounds good,” one friend said. “I looked it up. Apparently it won some Euro game award recently.”

“You’ll see why,” I said, opening the box with help from two others at the table. They started removing packs of cards without my asking, eager to get started.

“Did you want something before we start playing?” my other friend asked, standing up slightly.

“That’s alright. I just… want to show you how to play. So we can all play,” I said, my throat closing up around the words.

What was wrong with me?

“One sec. Allergies,” I said, waving a hand before leaving to find the bathroom and some tissues. My eyes were all scratchy too, so I leaned down to splash water on my face. “I’ll be right back. I’m not going anywhere. Please don’t go anywhere.”

I opened my eyes.

It was dark, and the room was quiet.

How funny, to dream of something so mundane. I had been showing… Steve, right? I had been showing Steve and some others how to play my favorite game. My husband hadn’t been there that time, but he would come to our next game night now that he was home.

Wait. I’d had this dream already. Now the dreams were Technicolor mundanity, complete with solicitous friends and eager listeners and clear dialogue. How completely unlike real life.

I checked my phone. The last message I’d had from Steve was from almost two months ago.

I put the phone down. It was still a few hours to dawn. My nature sounds had stopped playing, and the quiet was bothering me again. I turned so I could at least stare at my husband’s back.

The shadows were all wrong.

I sat up on one side and put out a hand. The blankets were all still tucked in, the pillow cold.

My husband had been gone for months. How had I…?

Dammit.

The Nightmare

by Sara Madan

Stranded on the side of the road not a single car had passed by…

My car had broken down in the foggy mist of nowhere. Trying my mechanical skills would be a death wish because I had none. My phone was dead. I decided to walk and find some form of life. I scavenged a flashlight from the dashboard and some left over snacks to keep me going. The foggy mist grew weary to the point I felt I was deep in clouds. The cold kept clinging to my skin like a death trail. I was alone and lost…

I had walked for almost an hour and half. Neither the fact that no vehicles had passed by, nor any sighting of a living form did not bury my confidence, I kept going. Then out of the blue, I saw something like a road sign in a far of distance. As I drew closer, the sign read “Silent Hill population none”. I thought, could this be a joke? My curiosity was begging me to unravel this fact, could it be true? Or was it a prank? Curiosity got the best of me as I moved forward and finally saw the shadows of the town in the distance.

I had finally arrived, the fog disappeared and the view was crystal clear. Houses and buildings were burnt down and I could hear faint groaning and rustling from the ruins. The trees had ghostly look and fearfully strange. As I moved further down I came across a mysterious town hall which was intact without any destruction. I decided to enter and find any signs of life that could help to fix my car. I was getting late and I am sure my parents were looking out for me. As I lunged open the door, I saw a shadow on the other side of the hall, I called “is anyone there? No answer, so I made my way to the other side of the hall, the shadow re-appeared it was skinny like a skeleton of an old man the only thing that was live was his fiery eyes. He had a crooked grin for a smile and as he spoke I could see his guts through his mouth. I asked him about the town, his reply was “welcome to hell”. My heart began to beat as he described how the foggy and misty road was the entrance to hell and that I had passed out at the side of the road in a horrific car accident. How could he have known about the road accident? Panic crept into my chest….you are dreaming…I try to assure myself and manage to cling on to that futile hope.

I whisper to myself…… am I really dead? My heart pounded furiously.

Where am I?

I eyed the portraits which were from the ceiling to floor, wall to wall; of people I knew, like my granddad and neighbours who had passed away long ago. I wondered why their portraits were here in this mysterious burnt out town. All of a sudden when the clock struck 12 midnight (that’s what I sensed), I heard someone whisper my name and then, simultaneously, all the portraits on the wall came alive. To my horror they were all disfigured faces staring at me, trying to touch me I turned to run out of the building to escape but the door was no more there, the creatures tried to claw into me, I futilely tried to escape, but my knees buckled the creatures were upon me, they said “it’s time to say goodbye” , I was choking in agony , blood oozing from my eyes, when I woke up screaming in cold sweat and my grandma holding me, whispering …it is only a dream, you are safe now.

A Life in Darkness

by Noor Nass

The dark as an adjective means with no light. The word dark as a noun means the absence of light in place. When the almighty created the earth, the earth was nothing but pitched black to the deep. The blackness to the creator was like a white page to the writer. There was nothing in that darkness not even a letter or a vowel in place. Like a blank paper ready to be written on, it was waiting to draw something.

To get the writer to be in character then he must write. Just like the creator used darkness and made light for things to be found and became a creator. Therefore, the writer must write to find the written word and be a writer.

Let that word be a story of darkness that took over my life, since I can recall. And, to find the light I had to walk the same path that I rejected over and over again.

I grew up with a 10% functional mother when I was a child. And, just because darkness took over her life.

She did not see life the way her children did or the way her husband did. As much as she was in darkness, the reality of the life we view today only made sense with a few words to her. Like “I am your mother” and “G’d is going to curse you and revenge me”. I lived with that threat constantly.

Growing up in the uptown of the East of the Island, when I was in second grade she hit me up harshly for telling her that I studied and got a 60% pass on one my subjects. She took the degree and shoved it in my face and kept on verbally repeating where is the study you studied. Then the verbal humiliation became physical, she took her heavy hands and slammed it on my 35 KG body.

First, she aimed to my arms, then she took her hands and slammed me on top of my legs- the thighs. And, last to the side way of my body. I was so bruised that you can see the purple effect on my skin.

I went running to my room locking the door behind me. I was saved by her big body that couldn’t keep up with me running around the room escaping her lashes, or my fate would have been worse.

My dad came back from work and found me that night crying myself to sleep and asked me what went wrong. And, I told him the story with showing the scars from the effects of the slams. We could tell, me, my dad, and my family that something was not right with this woman. As a child, I would be forgotten a few times after school due to her long naps and delusional state in the other world.

My mother wouldn’t work. Although she came from a well-off family that owned their own restaurant, and sent all brothers to western educational colleges. And, her sisters sent all their children to private schools for a British education. They would only allow a marriage to happen with their blessings to their offspring’s and siblings. Such as if the Man was not taught, did not work and did not pray five times a day, then it’s pointless to ask. In other words, a rocket science with no moon.

On the other hand, she dedicated herself to raise the children up instead of perusing a college degree. And as we grew older she perused a diploma degree in children’s education. Which, of course I can only remember her when it came time for food or visiting the evil castle of her sisters.

I tried to be a good child by listening to her but nothing she said would benefit me socially, emotionally, educationally, or physically. Her approach was always to serve her and to please her or I will be cursed because mothers hold the keys to heaven and I don’t.

of course, a lot of my friends do not get why I did not spend time with my mother or why I was so mean about it. Perhaps, what I could not understand about her mental situation made me in so much darkness.

Most people would go with just the feeling to be with a parent, I had to go with sympathy, apathy, guilt, forced kindness, obligations and duty. Her situation was difficult and because of social taboos her sisters and her would say there was nothing wrong. To the extent that they believed their own lies. Which is not a bad way of living but the planets will still not grow in my garden and that’s why it was a problem for me.

When I can see her speak to herself in the other world, fantasizing a different husband while she is in a marriage. Every family opportunity was invested on fighting with my father for torturing her to be on medication that are not working.

Then, it will move for his delusional understanding of the working environment, then it will move about how he should not talk about her Lebanese family. The woman used to make up fights and make up gossips that never happened. She cuts out family ties because she insists that my Aunt spoke behind her back when my aunt was in middle school. I was cursed with living with the devil’s creation, it was darkness like hell on earth.

On top of it we were brought up in a modern, Arabic setting where we relied on our parents to set the path for a good block to start our future. Unfortunately, due to the darkness we were in – it was impossible to see the light at the end of tunnel. Except if I meet someone, which I did.

Like an optimist I failed to see the challenges that came with the marriage or some people would say delusions, others would say like a good wife. But that life that made me experience my life for the first time and not force my parent’s life on me lasted until it lasted.

My Armageddon happened, my unexpected happened, and my worst nightmares happened. Like the air breeze stopped blowing my direction and began to mean a different meaning.

The meaning of my husband has altered, the best friend and my rock. That cutty hitting on me in the office while I thought he was separated turned against me. the idea of work, turned into a science experiment in my head. Should I salute the girl that was praying for something along those lines to happen, because I over smiled to everyone.

Mania gave me the feeling of euphoria like an apple falling to the ground at collision with the earth sounded like gravity to me and altered my reality. Like a different parallel world. Except this parallel world felt like a computer scientist that moved as fast as the speed of light to manage my information data.

My life was bummed, it was not like nothing was said and nothing was heard. I ran with my music. like a disease of the mind that held me- there was no place for comfort. Like a thief in the middle of the night that came and grabbed me and my family. To each member their own path. The city of light did not grab us, but religion did. And, it taught us one truth that in the end of darkness there were the pits of hell waiting for the time of our grave. Where it called on us.

To enjoy life, each escaped to their own madness. Except mine became officially true with a pen and a paper. It was dark with no hope. Only to empty my pockets more and ignore my heart, and fill in the pockets of that gold stamp of thee educated person with the convenience of their comfort. No one gave me comfort and no one gave me light, if they tried to pass on the light they would only burn me with it. That included anything I tried to build with that burned light.

I ran for six years in and out of mental institutes, they were painful, harsh and unrealistic. The symptoms of mania would get worse. I would not want to live because I would stop feeling. I would gain weight and be paralyzed .. not to mention sleep all the time. It was obvious it was not working and the more time you gave it. The mental institute would point out how stable I looked. Not to see their own blood on their hands. Like an elephant who was given stabilizers with no purpose to attend to.

The words of wisdom of the world order would not make sense anymore. Except the almighty gave me some truths that the light in my heart kept on fading away as the years passed on and the poisonous torture continued. I found some examples of life and versus helpful and they were: “Ask, and it shell be given to you; seek and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. For everyone that asketh recives; and that seeketh, findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.” And, in my world it was “those that peruse will find.” But in reality, I knew from numerous examples in anything someone sets his hearts to shall find the desired outcome. In other words, light decided to shine on my state of darkness. It came as a lovely video stating the new technological evidence of micro-nutrition’s effecting mental health. I couldn’t believe what I heard.

It meant I can walk, talk and look like me. And not like an instrument for the devils and demons. Maybe, with Angels and a G’d.

It was the fifth month being on the doctors advise and no mother or father or a lover shed a tear for what I was feeling. I was in so much physical and emotional pain. I spoke to my father and he placed an order for the micro-nutrition bottle. Of course, being skeptic about the validity of it working. Like dreading the fact that I might come to life again. My order came two weeks after the initial request. I took the bottle from him and went back home. Every day as soon as I wake up I would take some vitamins, and at noon time I would take one again. After four days to one week I felt better. However, It was until I dropped the psychotic crazy drugs that the micro nutrition kicked in the stranger effects. There were hardly any voices, my chemicals felt relaxed and I did not sway with my emotions. As far as everyone is concerned I was experimenting what everyone feels in their daily experience of living on this earth. However, it was until my mind survived over and over the days ahead that I realized that it actually worked. That micro nutrition was able to give my chemicals a natural creation of serotonin to my body that would take me away from my parallel reality. It was not hiding the wounds but it was creating the natural substances of my own tissue. Like my own white blood cells. I finally found the light in my darkness. To remain there would have kept me in darkness; which was painful, would not shut up, would stop, would not rest and with no purpose that is visible in reality or outside of reality. I was scared and all on my own, with no justification but condemnation. It was Dark and I was scared.

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What started out as the April challenge, eventually became the May-June challenge. Four very interesting tales were sent in to be reviewed.

Entrants had the following prompts to choose from: A Campfire, The rain wouldn’t stop, and finish this sentence: “I didn’t plan to be a superhero, but all of that changed when I got bitten by a __________. (And then write a story that follows it.)

Martin G. Parker

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Our member and writer Martin Parker, very kindly agreed to be the reviewer and sent in his detailed critiques of the pieces entered. Thank you Martin!

Profile: Martin was born in 1956 in Uttoxeter in the English Midlands. He has worked in factories, retail, the funeral business, driven taxis and played trombone in a British Army regimental band, but since 2000 he has worked as an Associate Professor of English Language and Linguistics at the University of Bahrain, specialising in the history of the English language and meaning in English. He has published two novels, They Also Raise Chickens, and The Conscientious Historian, and a collection of writings, Improbable Tales From Unlikely Places, all available in paperback and on Kindle from Amazon. Martin is also a musician; he sings, plays the guitar, mandolin and harmonica with the Bahrain-based Celtic-music band, The O’Dwyers. In addition. Martin runs the monthly meetings of the Bahrain Acoustic Music Group who hold their regular sessions at JJ’s. Martin lives in Bahrain with his wife and 12-year-old son.

Chickens Cover            Historian Cover copy   51YVPBsOo+L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

And so without further ado… here are our entries

The Rain Wouldn’t Stop

By Preeti Rana

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I didn’t plan to be a superhero

By Rifat Najam

…But all of that changed when I got bitten by a pair of toddlers. My twin toddler nephews are a great booster for me. Whenever I feel dull, I rush to visit them to boost my energy. With them I get to act all insane, thus forgetting all the temporary stresses of the day. When the super aunt and nephews go crazy with their super powers, the mother’s heart starts to beat so fast that it seems it might jump out at any moment, yet she pretends to act all normal as if she is carefree. Kids are a blessing, in their innocence they bring us back on track when our steps wander away.

I recently saw a documentary, Teen Press, by T. C. Johnstone. Although the maker tried to portray his vision of ‘you can be anything you want’, from my perspective it gave out different messages to different minds. “Everyone has a story to tell” and “they are just people”, were comments made by two teenagers that really affected me as these are two of the few things that I had recently been struggling with.

Kids are innocent beings who know no limits to the etiquettes that Life teaches. Their innocent souls value gold and sand as one. Love and laughter are the language they speak and share. Many times they clear our blurred vision when we go astray. I love taking advice from my niece when that blurred vision strikes me. The other day I was irritated for some reason when she made a comment, “happy times, happy memories, when you come then we talk happily”, which completely took my irritation away.

Recently I asked myself a question: why is it rare to see assistance being offered before it is asked for. You don’t have to possess super powers to understand when help is needed. People nowadays seem to have covered their eyes with blinkers in order to run in one particular direction. Our lives are divided into professional and personal halves; professionally, a lot of potential is waiting to be discovered and given assistance before this neglected talent fades away. And personally every being has a responsibility towards its surrounding.

Nature has taught us how we are all interconnected. Rivers flow so life can flourish and if that came to an end life will become extinct. Similarly, if the winds stopped blowing globalization would come to an end. When nature has taught us to share, then why do humans act selfishly and hold back what tomorrow doesn’t promise to be theirs.

In simple words, step up and be the change that explores the one in need and help before it gets too late!

Superhero

By Michael Rollins

I didn’t plan to be a superhero, but all of that changed when I got bitten by a bug called fatherhood: Quite a statement, I know, but I also know that I’m no different than most other fathers out there. The thing is, it’s not about us; it’s about our children: They make us superheroes.

*

My daughter, Maya, was just five when my best friend, Michael, died. She called him Mikey; no-one else did, and he liked that. Michael was her favourite visitor; she attached herself to him from being a few months old and that was that.

Michael was a friend I’d known at school and later, by chance, a work colleague, when the firm I worked for merged with his. We developed a friendship based at first on mutual respect for each other’s work and then because we just…‘clicked’: The same sense of humour and a love of reading fiction being two of the main reasons. I remember the drunken discussions we had over James Ellroy and Cormac McCarthy, which trailed like ribbons unspooling deep into the night. Eventually, Michael became my boss or, as my daughter referred to him, my ‘work teacher’.

And we worked well together. And we had some great times. And Michael knew he was dying long before my little girl was born.

*

Michael never really disclosed anything about his condition; he was not secretive but quite vague, and all anyone really knew was that there would be no recovery. Like many people in this position, he helped his family and friends through it all. For a few years there was little noticeable change in his physical appearance. Yes, he had to rest more frequently and was steadily losing a small amount of weight, but there was no sudden change. Until, in his final year, over a few weeks in the autumn, he melted away like the reds and golds of the October leaves.

*

Explaining to a five year old what death means can be like trying to separate the milk from a cup of coffee. We were prepared to talk about what people think might happen after somebody dies and had tried to ready ourselves for the questions that a five year old would probably ask. When Maya had listened to what we had to say, she looked at us for a full minute, her eyes as sad as those of Christ in a painting of the Sacred Heart.

‘Why wasn’t it me?’

We had no answer that was worthy of the question. My pathetic words ‘It was his time’ folded and crumpled in my mouth, into the dust they deserved to be.

*

In the weeks following the funeral, Maya became another girl. She was uncommunicative and guarded, where she had been confident and friendly; uninterested and a little cold, where she had really loved life and the living of it. Our baby stopped smiling, but she hadn’t cried, and that, more than anything, broke our hearts.

There were a couple of incidents at school. Nothing major, although we were called in one time after she had told two of her friends that they or one of their parents could just

disappear one day without even telling them, and never come back. The girls had both burst into tears at this and the teacher told us that Maya just shook her head at them, walking away like a parent who was out of patience.

We knew after this episode that trying to ignore the profound change in our daughter, hoping this was temporary, was not an option. To get our little girl back we had to encourage her grief.

But how?

My wife and I had always shared the opinion that everyone grieves in their own way; that there are too many judges in this world. We all deal with loss differently, as individuals, and it is fundamentally wrong to expect everybody to behave in the same way. However, we had on our hands a confused, frustrated and unhappy young girl that we loved more than anything in this world. We had to think of a way to help her out of the shadow that had been cast over her since Michael died.

*

In the end, the answer was simple, as these things often are.

Just after Maya turned four, she went through a phase. Every parent knows about ‘phases’; this word covers all those difficult periods in a child’s life that parents go through. Those times when Mum and Dad are pulling out their hair for a solution to a new pattern in their son or daughter’s behaviour that is inconvenient.

For instance, there is ‘Question Time’. For everywhere you go and everything you do, there are is an unlimited, unstoppable flood of questions; unanswerable questions that drown you in a wave of words. ‘Why is he a policeman?’, ‘What is a bird for?’, ‘Who thought of butter?’

Maya’s phase involved getting out of bed within minutes of our leaving the room. There had always been the conversation about her day, the two stories, the ’cuggle’ and the kiss goodnight: a ritual to rival any sacred rite.

I remember the first time she ventured downstairs. She must have followed her Mum out of the door within seconds and walked into the kitchen where I was pouring our ritual glass of wine; a quiet celebration that all was done for the day and that everything in Paradise was just as it should be. Except this evening, it wasn’t.

‘Maya, what are you doing?’ I asked as she opened the fridge door peering inside like she had a particular sandwich in mind.

‘I’m minding my own business.’

It was clear that Paradise had a problem…

*

At last, as we were approaching the outer realms of our sanity, my wife came up with an inspired idea. Music. Maya had always responded well to music, almost all of her favourite children’s programmes were musically based and when she was only a few months old her Mum’s singing would soothe her like nothing else. So we created a file for an i pod and each evening, after the kiss goodnight, Maya would snuggle down and drift off on a cloud of melody. Perfect.

*

Just like everyone I ever knew, Michael had a ‘guilty pleasure’:1980s love songs. He could not get enough of them, he…well, he loved them. And there was one in particular that he seemed to adopt as a kind of theme song; He was always humming or singing the damn thing. Leo Sayer: I Love You More Than I Can Say. I used to call him morbid, because of the line, Why must my life be filled with sorrow, but he would just laugh, said if I listened to it all I’d see it was uplifting. We agreed to disagree.

He sang the song wherever he was, to whoever happened to be listening. To Maya.

And that was it; that was the simple answer.

*

When I entered the half-light of the bedroom, I was sure that she had fallen asleep, but as I moved closer, I could see her blue eyes were open and glistening with tears.

‘That last song made me cry Daddy,’ she whispered, as I sat down next to her. She took my hand and I leaned forward to brush the hair from her forehead, smoothing my palm over her hair until I held her head cupped gently in my palm.

‘Why, Maya?’

‘I don’t want to talk about it. Will you hold me while I go to sleep?’

I stayed there and held her all night. And I felt like a superhero.

A superhero by a campfire in the rain

by Dr Manish Tayal

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This was sent separately and wasn’t part of the challenge, however, inspired by all the writing prompts, one of our new members, Dr Manish Tayal, decided to write the following story based on all of them)

I didn’t plan to be a superhero, but all of that changed when I got bitten by a familiar, restless yearning.

Growing up on the beaches near Karachi, I’d been raised on warnings of the dangers that lay across the black waters, the kaalaa paani. But I’d always had a rebellious streak, and I’d taken to visiting the old man who lived alone in the woods and listening in awe to his stories. I still remember the day he’d arrived in the village, freshly electrified and inspired from his travels and all he’d seen; and I remember how he’d tried to show and tell us, and how he’d been cut off mid-flow, his excitement turning to confusion, then disappointed understanding, and finally sorrowful acceptance, as my fellow villagers had cast him out. Impure, sullied by crossing those forbidden oceans to the distant, unclean worlds beyond, he could not be allowed into the village, lest his presence pollute innocent minds. Young minds like mine: eager for the promise of excitement, adventure and more.

The old man had long passed away, and the harsh realities of life pushed thoughts of distant, forbidden adventures far from my mind, as I grew and matured into a young farmhand, learning from my father the tools and techniques of our most noble of trades, producing food (and money) from the land of our master, the zamindar. Even though I’d never met him, and he knew nothing of my existence, I was loyal to my master, who provided for me and saw that I was fairly rewarded with my share of the fruits of my labour. And so, when the recruiters came to our village, singing songs of riches, glory and opportunity, I too joined my friends in ridiculing their extravagant promises. In our small world, we knew little of the great war building in faraway lands, but we knew that the tales those crazy fools spun had nothing to do with us.

Four months had passed since we’d lost my father to sickness. My mother wept as the zamindar’s men carried on talking to her, but I’d heard nothing more after their first few words, the rest of the conversation drowned out by the singing in my head, so loud was the memory of the recruiters’ songs, which until then, I hadn’t even realised I’d listened to, let alone remembered.

Bharti ho jaa ve
Baahar khade rangroot!
Aethe khaavein sukki hoyi roti
Othe khaavein fruit!
Aethe paavein phate hoye leere
Othe paavein suit!
Aethe paavein tutti hoyi jhutti
Othe paavein boot!

Join up, join up
The recruiters are outside!
Here you’ll eat dried roti
There you’ll eat fruit!
Here you’ll wear torn tatters
There you’ll wear a suit!
Here you’ll wear broken, worn-out shoes
There you’ll wear boots!

The zamindar had not been so oblivious after all. He knew me to be a loyal, hard-working, strong young man, struggling to provide for a mother, two sisters and a new wife. When the recruiters came to him, requesting ‘volunteers’, he knew he could trade me in return for not giving up his own sons. After the men left, my mother spat curses on the zamindar and his family, swearing that she’d never let me go, but she knew we had no choice – earn the displeasure of our master, or have the family comfortably provided for directly by the King-Emperor himself. Besides, that old yearning had started to return from the depths of my conscious, where it had laid buried for so many years, and I again wanted to cross the kaalaa paani and see for myself the lands the old man had told me about as a child. Within days, I was bidding my wife farewell, the taste of her tears as I kissed her cheek reflecting the cocktail of emotions within me: the bitterness of parting and cold fear of the unknown mixing with a bubbling excitement of adventure and the sweet, intoxicating taste of freedom.

I’d been to sea before of course, going fishing in my friends’ boats. But this was wholly different, an entire floating village housed in steel. So many young men from all over India, all with different stories: the woodcutter Mir Ali, enticed by the money, riches and fame; Gobind Singh, a proud Garhwali, who’d recently joined the Army, just like his father and grandfather, and generations beyond; Kartar Singh, a farmer like me, who at the recruiters’ call, had instantly set off to faithfully serve the King-Emperor. Old hands, like Ram Singh, who’d fought in North-West Frontier, Waziristan and elsewhere, recounted war stories, alternately thrilling us with tales of their adventures and terrifying us with accounts of grave horrors. But the long journey took its toll, and we were all glad to finally reach the shores of Europe. As we arrived in Marseilles, we were shocked at the unexpected heroes’ reception: smart ladies with creamy soft, pale skin and the sweet scent of roses, waved to us as we marched past, one running out to hug me, another pinning a flower to Kartar Singh’s chest; pink, bouncing children marched along with us, towels wrapped around their heads as turbans, babbling away to us in their unfamiliar tongue; and sturdy, bearded, red-faced men shook our hands and patted our backs, tears in their eyes.

Marseilles felt like a whole world away, and home was but a memory. The rain wouldn’t stop, the knee-deep water in the trenches soaking through everything, bringing with it a bitter cold that removed all feeling from my feet and made it difficult to keep a safe grip on my rifle. I held each hand in turn in my armpit, and as I did so, I felt for the reassuring hard metal of my bayonet – already, it had saved my life more than once, just the previous day sinking into a young German soldier, no older than me, who’d tried with his troop to storm our position. As he’d fallen, in horror I’d recognised his face and the memory still made me shudder. Just three weeks earlier, against orders, our troop commander, Captain Matthew sahib had laid down his rifle and walked out into No Man’s Land, to meet with the Germans. After some time, he’d called to us to join him, and in a mix of English, broken Hindi and stuttering German, he’d introduced and brought together those who’d spent months trying to kill each other, and would do so again once the day was out. But for those precious few hours, we all shared and celebrated together, exchanging personal trinkets and cigarettes – sahib tried later to explain to us about his festival of ‘Christmas’, but I only cared that for a few moments, I’d laughed and found warmth in the company of others. A deep, gruff voice cut through my reflections, as another soldier arrived to take my place in the trench. I hadn’t eaten or slept since the previous day’s attack, and suddenly realised how much I needed both.

As I walked back to the lines, I saw some of my friends already there. The langris, the cooks, had found some fresh vegetables in a nearby market that day, and had cooked them up to go with our standard diet of dahl, rice, roti, meat and potato. And so we huddled together to share stories, eat, and enjoy the company of the closest friends we’d ever know, and as we talked and ate, we forgot all about the cutting rain, the falling bombs and the homesickness, and we planned and bragged of the bravery and victories the following day would bring, until we honestly believed that our small troop would bring down the entire German Army, single-handedly winning the war for the King-Emperor.

I didn’t plan to be a superhero, but just in that moment, sat around a campfire, in pouring rain, with a bunch of men just like me yet each so completely different, I truly felt like one.

September 2017
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