“The Deer Cabin” by Justin Kingery

Kingery-Deer Cabin1

Today, in a Chinese city of fifteen million people, I step onto the biggest airplane I’ve ever seen, spend thirty of the most uncomfortable hours of my life running to gates and hitching connecting flights, and finally settle down into the back seat of my mother’s car.

I have been studying overseas for six months, and I have never felt so torn. In the black night as we drive the eighty miles home, I try to sleep, but every time I close my eyes, I see the faces of friends I will never see again. We all said we’d find each other again someday, somewhere, maybe in Mumbai or Singapore or Istanbul—hell, maybe even back in the filthy streets of Dalian or Beijing—but I know better. Back in the Midwest, snow is on the January ground, and I can once again see the stars from my middle-of-nowhere home.  I feel far away from everything. I make no sound. For the last few days, I have longed for home, for family, for a bed with a mattress, and a view of trees with green leaves. It’s a strange, uncomfortable sensation to feel comfort neither here nor there, to want nothing more than to go and also to stay.

At home, I sleep for two whole days. My biological clock is broken. My mother wakes me to make sure my heart is still beating. I tell her I am unsure. My bedroom is unexpectedly familiar, dull. When I came back from the East, I hoped to be surprised by the person I was before. I secretly longed to be like someone awaking from a coma or cryogenic hibernation who returns home to find that he remembers very little about who he once was. I imagined myself sifting through my own belongings as a stranger, struggling to piece together stories from a former life from nothing more than photographs in dark wooden frames or coins in a glass jar. But nothing has changed. I still remember where to find socks, favorite shirts, CDs. I left Missouri so I would come home and find that everything had changed, that I’d forgotten it all, but I was wrong. Everything is still the same. Even me.

I am depressed. I miss the energy and the smell of the city. I look out my window, hoping to see hundreds of people I will never meet, talk to, or see again, but all I see are open fields of white and Charolais cattle nosing around in muddy patches of snow. Missouri has never felt so lonesome. I think about my friends on the other side of the world cramming themselves into city buses, eating at unusual restaurants, trying to communicate with taxi drivers with nothing but severely broken Mandarin and hand gestures. I smile and remember the life I led just a few days before, the same funny things, but they feel like dreams and become foggier and foggier the longer I am awake.

I have lost all sense of the comfort of home, and I fear I may never find it again.


Some old friends, real country boys I grew up with, drive out to the house and pick me up. They’ve planned a night out at the deer cabin, and they want to hear about all the little “Chink gals.” I’m torn between offense and ennui. Nothing can ever be explained. I would rather not talk about any of it.

They take me out into the snowy woods for the night. Three of us ride in a small truck, and scents of tree bark, wet dirt, and fire smoke linger in the air. As we drive through a field and stop to unlatch three gates, I see the moonlight has covered the landscape in the same blue hue often used in nature calendars for the month of December—a solemn blue night scene to symbolize the death of the year. As the truck pulls up to an open spot in the field, there are others waiting for us, feeding wood to a huge bonfire out in front of the old wooden cabin, which is inhabited mainly during deer and turkey hunting seasons, with its patchwork tin roof, wooden stoves, kerosene lamps, and mismatched antique furniture. All around the 2500-acre piece of land are food plots, deer cameras, hunting blinds, and other things I don’t know much about. But I have spent many nights at the cabin over the years, just hanging out around the fire, listening to my friends, the outdoorsmen, tell stories of the hunt. A lone liberal amongst rural conservatives, I was the only one who didn’t hunt, but my disinterest was never questioned. We had grown up together over fifteen years with other things in common—schoolteachers, summer jobs, and baseball. We knew everything about one another. We were like brothers.

The fire outside the cabin grows tall and bright, and no one can stand too close to its heat. A few of us stand with our backs to the flames, turning like sausages when one side becomes too hot. There are eight of us out here, the sun has long gone down, and someone asks about the skillet’s heat. Chad violently shakes meat in a ziplock bag full of breading and yells that we’re going to have a feast. I ask what’s on the menu. Suckers, rabbit, venison, turkey, dove breast wrapped in bacon, chips, and cans of Coke. Garret even brought some crow meat in reminiscent celebration of a disgusting dare I had taken a few years back. He promised to eat it with me this time, to share the grotesque glory. They had been saving all this food and planning this night to celebrate my return from the East. For the first time in a week I smile and laugh and dodge surprise swats to my groin. We laugh and wrestle. Their voices are so incredibly familiar.

Around the fire we sit on pieces of wood or in camping chairs, our laps holding Styrofoam plates. A few boys eat within earshot on a wooden porch swing to keep an eye on the meat still in the deep fryer. They ask me about China, if I was a giant, if I ate any dogs or cats, and more questions like that, but they also ask where I lived, what the Great Wall was like, and if the food was any good. I give them my answers and tell them in my best words what life was like there, what my experience had been, what it meant to me. I let them know I am still trying to understand it all myself. They listen in near disbelief, say the things I am telling them—some of my stories—are hard to believe or crazy, some sound like fun, but my friends make it clear that they could never do it, that they could never go off on an airplane over the ocean to such a strange place away from here, that they could never leave this land or their families for any period of time or accept any danger of maybe never making it back. Too much at risk. Too much to lose. They would be here forever, but they would gladly listen to my stories when I had them to tell.

We eat and eat. My friends cook fresh meat like five-star chefs. They talk of different culinary oils, meat rubs, and the cooking herbs they grow in small gardens and on windowsills. They have honed their outdoor skills throughout their entire lives, and I have always been fortunate enough to reap the rewards, the edible final products. This is the first time I have eaten a hearty meal in more than half a year. “You’re skinnier’n a snake,” they tell me. We each eat twice our fill, and there is leftover food we will take home to our families tomorrow.

A few friends disappear around the back of the cabin as some of us are packing leftovers. A minute later, I hear laughing and look over to see them coming around the corner of the cabin pushing the golf ball cannon Chad and Adam’s dad built. Their family owns the cabin, so I have seen the black iron contraption before, with its heavy chase and dark bore. It’s secured somehow to an axel between two old bicycle wheels and has some other pieces of metal rigged up to absorb the kick—no doubt a personal project their father created during down time at the local steel plant where he’s worked for over thirty years.

With the cannon in place, Garret brings over a square hay bale and places a rotting pumpkin on top of it. Chad explains they had been saving the pumpkin for this occasion since Halloween, even though their mother complained of the flies it attracted to her porch. They pour black powder down the barrel and shove a white Titlist golf ball inside. Everyone stands back and covers their ears as Chad touches a fiery stick to the vent. Nobody sees the golf ball. The pumpkin explodes and a resounding boom travels across the fields and meadows where it will be heard miles away and someone will undoubtedly call the local police department and complain. Slimy chunks of pumpkin rain down all around us, onto our shoulders and into our hair, and we laugh. Chad and Adam tell a story about a neighbor more than a mile away who had found a lone golf ball in his field while out walking. They swear it had to be theirs.

The cold night gets colder. Once the cannon is wheeled back around the cabin, we all go to warm ourselves near the fire and talk some more. The focus shifts from my adventures in China to deer hunting, then to duck calls, then to crappy beds. I am happy to listen and watch my friends laugh and carry on, telling their own stories. Looking around, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot out here in the middle of nowhere—an old cabin, a snowy woodpile, a couple of old rusty burn barrels, a saggy barbed-wire fence—but still, I cannot imagine myself never being here again.

Talk dwindles and we begin to nod off in our camping chairs, so we rise and surrender to the cabin. There is no electricity and only an old pot-bellied wood stove for heat, but the beds and down mattresses strewn throughout the rooms are covered with heavy homemade quilts to keep out the cold. Two hours before, Chad had built a fire in the stove to warm the cabin. We find our places on bunk beds and on couches, and Chad, the oldest of us, argues and wins his spot closest to the hot stove. I follow my two closest friends up the homemade ladder to the attic that holds the stove’s rising heat, where, in two beds, a few boys can sleep “pole to pole or hole to hole, just not pole to hole,” as Adam chimes like clockwork, an essential piece of his camping dialogue. The three of us laugh, having heard him deliver the line so many times throughout the years. The fire outside is still burning brightly, and light from the yellow flames enters though the small attic window and dances on the low ceiling. There are spider webs in all the corners, everywhere. Garret recalls a time a few summers back when we all ran out of the cabin in the middle of the night and slept in our trucks because the cabin was full of brown recluses. We share a nervous chuckle.

Once our bodies settle into the feather mattresses and under the heavy quilts, we talk quietly for a bit, retell old stories. As usual, Adam falls asleep first. After minutes of silence, Garret asks me if I miss China. I tell him yes, that I do, but maybe not as much as yesterday.

Without speaking, he and I listen to the fire outside crackle and die down. The wood is burning away, and early in the morning when we awake to a cold stove and pull the quilts up over our numb faces, ash, smolder, and blackened Coke cans will be the only signs of our time.


Justin Kingery recently completed the coursework for a PhD in Technical & Professional Discourse at East Carolina University, where he also taught composition and nonfiction writing, and soon after left academia to pursue a career in writing in his native home state of Missouri. His essay published here was originally written in 2006, after a study-abroad experience in Dalian, China.

Read our interview with Justin here.

“Elixir in Exile” by Lucine Kasbarian

Kasbarian-Elixer in Exile1

If Ponce De León could search for the Fountain of Youth, could an Armenian daughter demystify the elusive Iskiri Hayat?

Hidden away in my parents’ home in New Jersey is an extraordinary liquid in a glass decanter shaped like Aladdin’s lamp.

Tinted like a carnelian gem and with a spicy, musky, transporting scent, this exotic liquid seemed destined to be applied like perfume rather than consumed like a beverage. The liquid only emerges from its cabinet to be carefully meted out for honored guests or as a folk remedy for the odd illness.

Enter the rare and precious Iskiri Hayat. Persian for “the elixir of life,” this tonic has been a source of curiosity and admiration since my childhood—a cryptic key to a fascinating past.

The word iskir is a dialectical variant (Turkish corruption) of the Persian iksir (elixir). Hayat means “life” in Persian and Arabic. And from the veneration with which the beverage was spoken about and handled when I was a child, I was convinced that Iskiri Hayat had mystical properties.

Dèdè (my paternal grandfather) knew our Armenian ancestors concocted this liqueur in their native land, but not much else—other than that one whiff had the power to transport an inhaler from exile all the way back to our native province of Dikranagerd (present-day Diyarbakir, Turkey).

I once got a glimpse of the raw ingredients, each preserved in a cloth sack tied with string. Some of them—what looked like clusters of horsehair, or a bunch of petrified raisins—could have populated a witch doctor’s medicine bag. When I was old enough, Hairig (my father) would reel off the 20 ingredients of the liqueur to me in reverent tones: Amlaj, Kadi Oti, Koursi Kajar… Recited in succession, they sounded like an incantation. In fact, as an adult, I learned that Hairig regretted not asking Dèdè more about “the medicines”—what Dèdè called the herbs and spices comprising Iskiri Hayat.

On his last visit to Beirut in the 1950s, Dèdè returned with a batch of the ingredients given to him by Manoush, one of his three sisters. Illiterate, she prevailed upon her nephew, Vahan Dadoyan, to take dictation and write in Armenian script the name of each ingredient on a tag that would be affixed to each item. As was customary for that generation, women knew recipes by heart and gauged ingredients atchki chapov (by eye). Thus, Manoush did not identify any measurements.

Fortunately, Dèdè possessed a dry mixture of ingredients already combined. We don’t know where he got it, but Hairig had, since the 1950s, repeatedly used it to make the drink. Today, our quantity is scarce and the potency of those mixed herbs, roots and spices has been depleted. Only one bottle of Iskiri Hayat remains. This has only intensified Hairig’s mission to decode and recreate the family recipe for Iskiri Hayat.

How could my father, in the 21st century and far from his ancestral homeland, reconstruct the recipe when he didn’t even know the English language equivalent for the names of some of these captivating-sounding ingredients, nor how much of each ingredient to dispense?

Alas, like the melange of spices and herbs in this ethereal concoction, many of the ingredients’ names themselves were probably combinations of languages spoken along the Silk Road, including the Armenian dialect of Dikranagerd, Arabic, Western Armenian, Kurdish, Turkish and perhaps even Chaldean Neo-Aramaic. Even for someone like my American-born father, who was fluent in the dialect of Dikranagerd and possessed more than a dozen dictionaries for the languages in question, trying to make sense of some names was problematic.

He knew that Sunboul Hindi was Indian Hyacinth. And that Manafsha Koki was Violet Root. But what the blazes were Agil Koki, Houslouban and Badrankoudj?

So much was lost in the genocide. To cut the Gordian Knot for an Armenian of the diaspora is to locate his/her confiscated, ancestral house in Western Armenia. Since Turkish authorities deliberately changed regional names and landmarks after 1915 to obfuscate their Armenian origins, the directives (often descriptions of the house and surrounding areas, handed down verbally from genocide survivor ancestors) are today insufficient.

For Hairig, another vexing quest had been to find people, of Dikranagerd ancestry or otherwise, who could help him decipher the names and meanings of the elusive ingredients in Iskiri Hayat. Though the famous Cookbook of Dikranagerd possessed a recipe for Iskiri Hayat, it was not the formula he sought. And while some firms produce commercial formulas, he wanted our specific ancestral recipe.

While the task seemed insurmountable, my father had made some progress over the years. However, in recent times, he seemed to have exhausted his options.

So, when I decided to make the pilgrimage to the deserts of Der Zor—the killing fields of the Armenian genocide—last year, I hoped to extend our search to Haleb (Aleppo, Syria), where some genocide survivors (including my relatives) found refuge. There, I surmised, the right person would surely recognize the ingredients’ names, know what they looked like, and even point me to where I could obtain them. We could worry later about how much of each item to blend.

Ultimately, my aim was to refresh Hairig’s supply—and from a source logistically close to Dikranagerd. Doing so seemed a meaningful thing a grateful child could do for a devoted parent in his twilight years.

My father had never seen the home of his ancestors and, yet, he carried the ham yev hod (flavors and fragrances) of Dikranagerd in his words, thoughts and deeds—from his modesty, humor and hospitality, to his dialect and storytelling ability, to his culinary and musical aptitudes. A humble gift would be to help him make that remarkable elixir that could, at least emotionally, bring his ancestors, their way of life, and our lost homeland back to him. And was it not worth it to rediscover a missing and precious part of our culinary heritage, and perhaps share it with the world?

During those fleeting days I spent in Haleb and through fellow traveler Deacon Shant Kazanjian (another Dikranagerdsi—a person hailing from Dikranagerd), I met and quickly bonded with Talin Giragosian and Avo Tashjian, a married couple who possessed the fine qualities one would wish to encounter among Armenians. Talin also happened to be Dikranagerdsi, and it stirred the senses to hear her and Deacon Shant converse in our earthy, colorful, near-extinct dialect. Talin, an English teacher, tried her hand at translating the Iskiri Hayat ingredients we did not recognize, and even enlisted her mother’s assistance. However, they both were as baffled as my father had been over the virtual hieroglyphics. And with that, Talin and Avo met me at the famed covered Bazaar near the Citadel of Aleppo, where the passageways are said to extend from the Fortress all the way to the Armenian Cathedral of the 40 Martyrs in the Old City.

This underground marketplace was a reminder of what life was like centuries ago. Rather than seeming anachronistic and backward, the atmosphere was invigorating. The Bazaar lured visitors to connect with history by showcasing cultural features that had managed to remain intact despite the modern world’s creeping influence. Here, people were not “living in the past,” as some are inclined to say about those who don’t conform to modern habits. These people preferred to cling to their traditions, taking part in an authentic continuation of the past in the present.

As we entered the Bazaar, we marveled at the vaulted ceilings, the intricately carved doors and metalwork on the walls. Merchants — some wearing kaftans, others in Western dress — would call out to customers. Through the narrow, serpentine passageways, hired hands led donkeys carrying sacks of grain. Others carried supplies on horseback. Niquab-wearing women haggled over prices. Through the labyrinths, we passed through the jewelry, textile, pottery and camel meat districts, until we finally reached the herb and spice district.

Talin directed me to the stall belonging to the Spice Man of Aleppo. He was the eldest, best known and most amply supplied of the spice vendors. Talin surmised that the Spice Man, who inherited the business from his father and grandfather, retained the knowledge they had amassed and transmitted to him. This would have meant that when our ancestors emerged from the deserts of Der Zor speaking a variety of dialects, the Spice Man’s grandparents picked up the many names a product went by, including those used by the Armenians.

In spite of whatever their personal ambitions may have been, the Spice Man’s four sons all worked in the family business, operating out of a closet-sized stall. It was teeming with bottles, packets, canisters and jars filled with powders, liquids, seeds and roots. A ladder led to a trap door on the ceiling that opened into an attic, their main storehouse.

Unable to communicate with words, I still could not contain my zeal upon encountering the Spice Man. Stoic and world-weary, he had no inkling of or interest in the source of my enthusiasm. A man of few words as it was, the Spice Man did not speak English. But as Talin recited the shopping list to him, name by name, something incredible occurred:

“Do you have Agil Koki?”, she asked in Arabic.

The Spice Man gestured a grand nod of the head, like a solemn bow, to signal “Yes.”

“What about Badrankoodj?”

Again, the Spice Man’s head would slowly move from up to down until his chin brushed his collarbone.

And so this ritual went on. Talin would say a name, and the Spice Man would unhurriedly acknowledge that not only did he know what the word meant, but that he stocked the desired item.

Then, the Spice Man would call out to his sons to each fill different parts of the order.

By the time Talin was through, we had collected all but one of the ingredients on the list. Even if he were not interrupted by demands from his customers, the Spice Man still would not have been inclined to have a significant chat. We were neither able to cajole him to explain in Arabic some of the more esoteric terms, nor did Talin recognize mystery ingredients by sight or smell. However, the Spice Man’s sons did write down, in Roman letters, each ingredient’s name on its corresponding package—a revealing moment.

I was in mortal shock when we left the stall having completed the lion’s share of my mission. To celebrate, Avo, Talin, Shant and I went to the Bazaar’s bath oil and fragrance district and rewarded ourselves by purchasing traditional kissehs—the coarse washcloths used by our elders.

Back in my hotel room, I shed a tear while inhaling each aromatic ingredient. Then, I securely packed them into Ziploc bags, distributed them throughout my luggage, and hoped I wouldn’t be taken aside at Damascus airport for suspected drug smuggling. Even afterwards, the heavenly scents that clung to the clothes in my suitcase made my mouth water when I unpacked them back in the States.

What was Hairig’s reaction when I returned to New Jersey, told him my tale, and presented him with one packet after the next? He seemed gratified, but also at a loss. Were we really that close to our goal? It was almost too remarkable. He inspected each sachet carefully as if to say “So this is what Badrankoodj looks like!” and braced himself for the next step: finding a knowledgeable spice vendor who could give us English equivalents to foreign words with the help of visual stimulus.

From here, we will keep readers apprised of the last legs of our intoxicating voyage. The reconstituted beverage may indeed be so supernatural that the next time you hear from us may be from Dikranagerd itself.

Lucine Kasbarian, writer, political cartoonist and book publicist, has been immersed in book, magazine, newspaper and online publishing for more than 30 years. She is a descendant of survivors of the 1915 Turkish genocide of the Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks, which drove her grandparents from their native lands in Western Armenia (now within the borders of Turkey). Lucine is the author of Armenia: A Rugged Land, an Enduring People (Simon & Schuster) and The Greedy Sparrow: An Armenian Tale (Marshall Cavendish). Her syndicated works, often about the culture of exile, appear in media outlets throughout the world. Visit her at: lucinekasbarian.com

Elixir in Exile first appeared in The Armenian Weekly.

Read our interview with Lucine here.

“Oranges” by Anthony Doerr


He’s in 13C. She’s in 13B. He’s moving west to take a job teaching history to seventh graders. She’s heading home from a nursing conference. He’s gangly, earnest, and scared. She has brick-red hair and eyes shaped like daisy petals.

After takeoff she produces two oranges from a monstrous purple handbag and offers him one. He tears off the peel into a hundred tiny pieces. When he looks over she has somehow unzipped her orange and her peel sits on the tray table in a single, mesmerizing spiral.

“How did you—?”

“You’re cute,” she says.

She eats it as if it were an apple: huge bites. Threads of juice spill down her chin. The flight attendant brings napkins. The cabin lights dim. She leans across him to look out the window at stars and he smells cloves, ocean wind, orange blossoms.

Her name is Annie. She’s twenty-nine years old, a hospice nurse. Her voice is a quiet, serene thing, a voice like a pool of sweet, underground water. A voice he wants to listen to in the dark.


** The remainder of this archived story has been removed at the author’s request (after a gracious three-month loan for the July 2012 issue). When it becomes available in book form, we will happily provide a link for purchase.


Anthony Doerr is the author of four books, The Shell Collector, About Grace, Four Seasons in Rome, and, most recently, Memory Wall. Doerr’s short fiction has won four O. Henry Prizes and has been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories, The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, and The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Fiction. He has won the Barnes & Noble Discover Prize, the Rome Prize, the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, an NEA Fellowship, the National Magazine Award for Fiction, two Pushcart Prizes, the Pacific Northwest Book Award, three Ohioana Book Awards, and the 2010 Story Prize. In 2007, the British literary magazine Granta placed Doerr on its list of 21 Best Young American novelists.

Read our interview with Tony here.

“My Kitchen, My Space” by Indira Chandrasekhar


Mala’s lungs emptied as if a sudden pre-monsoon pressure-change had thrust itself densely into her diaphragm. She gasped and put the saucepan down on the stove with a sharp clatter.

With an effort, she turned, holding on to the counter. Her mother-in-law had entered the kitchen. Light from the dining room silhouetted the old lady, outlining the set of her body. But while her shoulders were held soft and she appeared to lean solicitously forward, her stance was territorial, legs planted firm. My kitchen, it screamed. My saucepan!

Mala wished she weren’t here, in this kitchen. She wished Saurav hadn’t had to bring them, her and the children, here to his mother’s place. “It is just for a few weeks,” he’d said despairingly when the boarding school offered him a teaching job with no accommodation. The salary was pitifully low, but he took the job, he had no choice. “Once I am there I’ll surely get housing, Mala,” he’d continued in a flat, yet hopeful voice. “Till then, why don’t you move in with my mother.”

“We’ll be fine by ourselves,” Mala tried to insist, “you don’t need to take us to your mother’s place, my family will help me.” Your sister is dead Mala, he’d replied. Or had he said your mother is mad, your father is gone, your brother doesn’t care. She couldn’t remember precisely what he had said nor what she had said. She only knew that on that day, neither of them could bear to acknowledge that they couldn’t afford to keep their home. In a few weeks they had emptied it out and sold most of their things.

And now, Mala thought, she didn’t have a home, nor a saucepan in which to heat milk for the children’s cocoa. She had to use Saurav’s mother saucepan. To, which Saurav’s mother was saying, “I’ve told you so many times that we take out the new, stainless steel saucepan only when we have guests. What don’t you understand about that? Use this one for everyday, see, this one.” She took out the grey, aluminum saucepan with the crêpey Teflon interior and held it up.

Not the Teflon coated pan, Mala wanted to say. The neutral flakes of the rubbery, indestructible polymer will enter my children’s bodies. The resinous, elastic scales, eternally non-reactive will lodge in my children’s organs and accumulate in unknown crevices making them obese and cancer-prone. Minute, non-stick bits, inorganic plankton, so small that they are invisible, will wash through my children’s tender internal filters and attach scrapings of their helpless, innocent cells to the swirling, giant sphere of plastic waste in the ocean.


 Saurav couldn’t visit till two months after they moved. Now we will be able to leave, Mala thought when he finally arrived, now I can go back to my own home. “It’s been awful here, it’s been awful without you,” she wanted to cry. But he looked so pale and tired that Mala had swallowed her list of complaints and served him his dinner. I’ll have him to myself afterwards, she thought.

The old lady talked non-stop through dinner. She bemoaned the disruption of her solitary life, something for which Mala felt a grudging sympathy. But then she began telling Saurav what was wrong with Mala, telling him that Mala never got the niceties of a superior household, telling him that contrary to what he had proclaimed when he decided to marry Mala, that class did matter, telling him that the children lacked discipline, telling Mala that she had to separate herself from her son, only three, or the boy would develop unnatural attachments.

“That’s going too far, Mother,” Saurav interjected. The old lady shifted in her chair, aggressively thrusting her neck forward and banged sharply on the table, palm flat. “Do you think I am blind, do you think I am lying when I say the children cling to her,” she asked shrilly? The children stopped playing and moved quickly towards their father, their eyes wide. “She’s their mother, they’ve been through a lot. Naturally they are close when the only other person around …,” his voice was beginning to rise but then he looked down at the children, and it died down with a low gravelly whir. He bent and held them close, mumbling, “Leave it now, not in front of them.”

“You don’t have to protect them, I won’t ever harm your children,” the old lady screamed. Saurav opened his mouth but didn’t say anything.

Mala remembered the first time she had heard him speak. It was at a seminar, how she had loved his voice, loved him, loved working alongside him. Why hadn’t she stayed on at University, why couldn’t she have managed the pregnancies and the research like other women did. She could at least have continued teaching, she was a good teacher. Maybe her job would have survived the cutbacks even when they stopped funding his.

“How many students do you have,” Saurav’s mother was asking? Before he could answer, she continued, “Fourteen year olds, That’s nice – what is your house like, do you wear a suit to class, much better than those scruffy research clothes, a suit.” Saurav tried to smile in response. Stop asking him about his job, Mala wanted to shout. Can’t you tell that he hates it, that he wants to go back to his lab, don’t you know that he can’t connect to those children, doesn’t know what to say to them, that every day is a humiliation. Her hand trembled and a spot of sambar plopped onto the white, plastic tablecloth with its elaborate pattern of pressed-in flowers and whorls and indents. They all stared at the splash of lentil stew. The old lady began to scold as Mala dabbed at the spot, only to spread the yellow of the turmeric powder, the brown of the ground coriander seeds and the red of dried chillies into an ugly stain. As their grandmother’s voice rose, the children disappeared upstairs. Saurav watched them go, then finished his dinner, head bent and shoulders drooping. Mala wanted to hug him and say, it’s not your fault, you didn’t spill the sambar, I did. But, when they finally were alone neither of them wanted to talk about the bad things so she hadn’t said anything.


 She would use her savings and get herself a saucepan tomorrow Mala thought, taking a deep breath to shake off the paralyzing band of tension. Then, ignoring the old lady, she put the stainless steel saucepan on the stove, turned it on, and dipped a ladle into the container of cold milk that she’d placed on the counter. But as she raised the ladle to pour the milk in, the old lady swooped towards her, once again waving the disintegrating non-stick surface at her face. Mala’s back vibrated and cords stood out on her neck. And just like on the day Saurav had visited, her hand shook. A drop of milk splashed onto the counter and another landed on the stove with a hiss. The singed smell of burnt milk entered her nostrils and settled there, an acrid coating over the cloying scent of the old lady’s perfume. Mala returned the ladle to the vessel of cold milk with its dewdrops of condensation and laid her tension-stiff fingers against the chilled, curved surface of the metal container watching how they destroyed the evenness of the clean, trembling frost.

“Don’t use that,” the old lady repeated. And Mala lifted the shiny, stainless steel saucepan, still empty, and now red hot, and swung it towards the old lady ready to ram it into her face. But she smashed it instead onto the granite counter. The metal crumpled and the pan detached from its handle and landed at the old lady’s feet.

When the children scampered in for their cocoa, they found their mother on the floor, laughing with her head in her hands. They climbed on top of her and she rolled over on her back curving her spine to make herself into a boat for them. One day I am going to sail away with them, she thought, as she felt their breath warm on her face.


Indira Chandrasekhar is the founding editor of Out of Print, an online magazine for short fiction from the South Asian subcontinent. She has a Ph.D. in Biophysics and studied the dynamics of biological membranes at research institutes in India, the United States and Switzerland. Her work has appeared, among other places, in The Little MagazineEclectica Magazine, and Emprise ReviewPangea: An Anthology of Stories from Around the Globe that she edited with Rebecca Lloyd, will be published by Thames River Press in 2012. Links to her published stories are available on her blog.

Read an interview with Indira here.

“Don’t Tell Her” by Yu-Han (Eugenia) Chao

Chao-Don't Tell Her1

I don’t know how to tell my mother that my brother just died.

He fell off a stupid cliff while hiking somewhere in northern California. My mother had always called him long distance from Taiwan just to mutter at him about going hiking, she thought it was such a dangerous thing to do, since Americans don’t make their trails out of cement stairs and put bars on either side of the steps like Taiwanese mountain trails.

“What if you fall off?” she would ask. Maybe she jinxed him.

He was her favorite, baby son. Growing up, my older sister and I were always beaten and scolded for the slightest offense or disrespectfulness, but not the baby, not little Wei Wei. Wei was spoiled as anything because he was the youngest, the cutest, the smartest. Mom let him have his way all the time, despite Dad’s objections that he was becoming a momma’s boy.

“Pei! Be good to your child. Otherwise the gods will take him away from you,” she would say to Dad whenever he complained that she was being too lax with her youngest son.

But despite everything, despite the bottomless allowance account, despite the brand name sneakers, athletic gear, lack of punishment and expensive schools, Wei turned out all right. In fact, he turned out better than any of us. My sister studied music at Taipei Cultural University and I went to Mu Cha Vocational School on the outskirts of Taipei, while Wei went to the University of California, Irvine. He even got a scholarship. My parents were so proud. As soon as he graduated, both IBM and Intel wanted him; he chose IBM, which turned out to be an unfortunate choice because living in California was what got him into hiking–at least that’s what Mom always says.

What Taiwanese would be impressed by hiking in California–what do they have that we don’t? We have plenty of mountains right here surrounding Taipei basin, with nice Buddhist statues at the top, you can look down and see a sea of clouds floating by, and you’re up so high the water tastes especially sweet and the air is completely clear, damp, chillier, almost unearthly. I’d brought Wei hiking before, on Toad Mountain, he hated it and kept asking if we could go home now. That was ten years ago.

And now, my brother dies hiking in a foreign country at twentynine.

Our mother will never be the same again.

Maybe we don’t have to tell her.

The Taiwan Office in America called my older sister first. She said that the “in-case-of-emergency” number he had left with his insurance company was his sister, Jade Lin’s. Mom would have been heartbroken to know that his emergency phone number was not hers but Jade’s. But of course, Jade is the only family member who lives in America, in Dallas, Texas, to be precise. Jade teaches music students at home, in a large three-story rectangular house. She has a studio on the third floor where she makes Chinese looking ragbags out of scraps of fabric and ties, which she sells to American housewives for thirty dollars each.

Jade did not become hysterical upon hearing the news, because Jade only thinks of herself. She didn’t think of calling me in Taipei until five hours after she got the message.

“Hey, Allo, you’re not going to believe this, but Wei is dead. Our brother Wei. Mom’s Wei.” Her voice sounded like she had been drinking. Jade drinks. She claims her silent American husband drives her to drink, but as far as I know, she is the one who torments him. She has a silent little son, too, about eleven by now, an unhappy little runt, Nick, whose pictures she sends us every few months.

“How…are you sure? Wei? How can anyone die hiking? When? Who called you?”

“The Taiwan Representative Office. He went to the San something mountains with some friends, and he slipped and rolled down the edge. One guy watched him go down. They’re trying to find his body right now, and they think they can find it because the friends know the spot…”

“This is horrible. Couldn’t he be alive?”

“I asked that too. The officials said that we would be lucky to get the body back in one piece.”

“What are we going to do? I mean, what can we do now?”

“Well, I’m flying up to California tomorrow morning and leaving Nick with my next door neighbor. They have papers for me to sign, and I have to tell them what we want to do with the body.”

Our brother was already being referred to as “the body.” She could have at least said “Wei’s body,” or “our brother’s body,” but she had to say “the body.” It was too much for me to think about what we were going to do with Wei, how to get rid of him, to burn him or box him and bury him…

“Hello, Allo, you still there?” Jade’s voice was shrill all of a sudden.

“Yes, yes. I…I think we need more time. To think about…what to do. And what about Mom and Dad, what about Mom? Who will tell her?”

“You, naturally,” Jade said. “You live in Taiwan. Why should I make another long distance call to hear her weep over her baby for two hours?”

“That’s a nasty thing to say, Jade.”

“I’m sorry, it’s the gin speaking. Anyway, I’ll talk to you when I’m in California maybe. We might have to break it to Mom gently, if that’s even possible.”

“I know. She’s probably showing his pictures to one of the customers in her store right now and bragging about how successful he is in America.”

“I gotta go, Allo. It’s almost one in the morning here.”

“I can’t believe this happened.” As I say this, my drunken sister has already hung up on me with a loud click.


Mom lives about a twenty-five minute walk from my apartment, in our old house. Since she and Dad retired, she turned our first floor into a little grocer’s store like they used to have in old neighborhoods–places where you could buy a small handful of green or red beans, a cup of rice, dried goods, sauces, pickled vegetables, fresh spices, junk food and chewing gum. The store is kind of a hobby, we don’t know if she ever makes any money; she enjoys the company of local housewives when they come and chat over her counter in the afternoons. She gives away free fish tofu and little jars of pickled things to frequent customers and neighbors. Everyone knows her as Mrs. Lin, the old woman with a broad face, with a small round build and tiny eyes that squint into slits when she smiles, which is often, especially when she talks about her youngest son, Wei.

A little voice inside my head repeats over and over: don’t tell her, don’t tell her. Of course, keeping the disappearance of Wei a secret would be impossible since he, like a dutiful Taiwanese son, calls her every weekend. I could pretend to be him and call her, but that would be going too far, ghost-calling for my dead brother. I would have nothing to say.

I just wish I wasn’t the one to tell her. She would probably scream through a torrent of tears and beat me with her fists, screaming that I was lying. Me, the middle child, unsuccessful cram school teacher, renter of a small apartment at thirty-three telling her that her precious baby UCI graduate IBM developer patent-winning son has died. Hiking. She would be angry at me, she would act like it was my fault, just like we blame the weatherman when he tells us there will be thunderstorms when we have a picnic planned.

I should have been the one to die, not Wei. He wasn’t a bad brother. I will miss him, especially miss when we were children; lately I only see him for a few weeks at a time every year or two. I remember when Wei was addicted to computer games in junior high–I had to do all his math and science homework, Mom made me, saying it was my duty as an older brother. He also spent many hours discovering the secrets of the Rubik’s cube so that he had worn the stickers off two whole cubes and had to write the characters for red, blue, yellow, etc. on the white papery substance left on the cube. Even now (well, two days ago–not now, now he’s dead), give him a Rubik’s cube and he’ll turn it so fast you can’t see what he’s doing; in one minute he’ll have all six colors in their own matching positions on each facet of the cube.

Wei’s last year of junior high, he deleted all the files from his computer, threw out the floppy discs full of role-playing monster-slaying games, and studied for 7 months. It took only that for him to get into the best possible senior high, Jian Zon, then in his last year there get accepted to UCI in America out of the blue. We didn’t even know he applied; it was his English teacher’s idea.

I take the longest route possible through the nightmarket, taking my time walking to my parents’ house. It’s three in the afternoon so Mom will be behind the counter in her store. There couldn’t be a worse time to tell her, with customers coming and going, expecting her to work the cash register, weigh dried goods and tell them prices.

I pass the cleaner’s and look for Lucky, the Laundromat Dog (half the dogs in Taiwan are named Lucky). I always look for Lucky because he’s been around for so long that I’m afraid that one day I will pass the cleaner’s and there will be no Lucky because Lucky died. Who would have thought my little brother would go first. Peering into the cleaner’s, I see the brown and white, sweet-faced, pointy-nosed dog sitting under a clothes-folding table, eyes lazily following passersby. Lucky is old, no doubt. Though I’ve never played with him and he hardly knows me, I love him anyway. I don’t even know if Lucky is a boy or a girl, “he” could be an old grandmother dog. I wave at grandma Lucky and drag my feet into the nightmarket entrance.

The owners of stalls and stores and mats full of clothes and shoes are smiling, happy, enthusiastically trying to get customers to buy their wares. None of these people lost a son anytime recently, not a baby son who worked for IBM and got several patents, that’s for sure. I wonder if my mother will get over Wei’s death. She told me her mother never got over my uncle’s death–he was the only boy in a family of four children, and the smartest one, an excellent young surgeon in Tai Chung before he died in a car accident. I don’t remember my grandma much, but do recall that she burst into tears at any mention of my uncle and that before her death she trembled from something called Parkinson’s disease, and the medication made her slow, made her  call us kids by the wrong names, sometimes even by my dead uncle’s name. Maybe this was something that happened to women in our family, like a curse? If you love your son too much, he will die, and you will die heartbroken, trembling from a mild but incurable condition.

The streets look especially filthy today. Gum, blood-like stains of betel nut juice, scraps of paper, cigarette butts here and there on the bumpy asphalt and cement. A cockroach or two scurrying, some uncovered sewers with a dozen mosquitoes buzzing above them, children crying, toddlers falling down, men yelling and women screaming. Laughter. Chaos. The street smells like fish and smoked ham and fried chicken all at once. The unmistakable aroma of sweet roasted sausage assaults my face in its treacly heat; I’ve always hated sausage and the lemon, strawberry, and other inappropriate sausage flavors disgust me.

I am suddenly overwhelmed by everything, the odors, the noise, the crowded street, people brushing against me and thinking nothing of it. I am a bereft brother going to inform his parents that we are a bereft family; these people have no right to push someone who has the look that I have on my face, the look of someone who just lost a loved one far away. Several times I consider turning back.  My parents don’t have to know, if I just ignore the problem it might go away, my mother might forget she has a son in California, and everything will be okay, even if it feels like there’s something, someone missing.

I’m at the door of my mother’s store. You can’t see her when you first walk in because she deliberately designed the counter so it was to the left of the door, facing the back instead of the front door. Bad feng shui, I suddenly realized, I should have thought of this before and warned her. Do not work with your back to the door. A superstitious ex-girlfriend once told me that, and though I still think she’s nuts, I can’t help suspecting there’s some truth to the little sayings she repeated all the time. All Taiwanese are a bit superstitious at heart–even the most rational of us  think  there’s no harm in taking precautions–just in case. I need one of those lucky talismans my ex-girlfriend used to carry; I don’t know how to face Mom without one. Actually, Wei was the one who needed a lucky charm, or a tiny crystal Buddha figurine tied around his neck with a piece of red string–if he hadn’t died, our lives would still be normal.

I take a deep breath and walk in. Mom is not at the counter. Great, I can go now.

“Allo, what are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be getting ready for work?” It’s Mom, emerging from the condiments and rice aisle. I had completely forgotten about work, I’ll have to call the cram school and tell them I can’t be there.

“Uh, mom, I … I’m not teaching tonight,” is all I can say.

“Why not? What kind of expression is that? Did you lose your job? Did they fire you? I told you you should have gone to a real university. Didn’t I tell you?”

“Ma, I’m not fired. I just don’t feel well.”

“Where are you sick? I have medicine here in the drawer. Every kind of medicine.”

“Is Dad upstairs?” I ask, feeling like I need someone else here. The customers don’t count.

“I think he might be watching TV, I didn’t see him go out. You can go look for him.” She begins absentmindedly counting the change in her coin arranger and doesn’t look up. I don’t feel right going up to get Dad, but it also seems the wrong moment to be telling her about Wei; it would be catching her off guard.

“Ma, when was the last time you heard from Wei?”

“Ah,” her eyes light up and she finally looks at me. “Last Saturday I think. He said he was planning another one of those hikes soon, the silly boy. I tell him not to do it and he still does. He is too smart, nobody can tell him what to do, he never listens.”

“What if something happened to him, Ma?”

“Pei! What are you saying, it’s bad luck. Don’t say things like that. Are you cursing your younger brother?”

“No, Ma, I said if. What if.”

“There, you said it again! What is wrong with you, Allo?”

“It’s just, it’s just…” my voice trails off into a whisper, “something happened to Wei.”

“I told you to stop saying that!” she yells. “Are you on drugs?”

“No Ma, please listen to me. Wei went hiking. He fell off a cliff. He died.”

“Shut your mouth! You monster. You liar. Wei is fine, what are you saying? You are just saying this to make me crazy, you are jealous of your brother…” An elderly couple who had been putting green beans into a plastic bag quietly dump their beans back into the sack and walk out of our door, where they linger to eavesdrop. A baby at the back of the store starts crying in its mother’s arms at the sound of Mom’s shouting.

“I’m sorry, Ma. I’m really sorry. They told Jade in America and she called me this afternoon. So I came to tell you.”

“Where is he? Where is he? I want to see him,” she sobs.

“In California. Jade will tell us later tonight, when it is daytime there.”

She can no longer talk; she puts her head on her folded arms and weeps, like a girl who sat next to me in junior high used to do because her father beat her. My mother’s whole body convulses, she seems such a large, quivering bundle and a little old woman at the same time. I don’t know how to comfort her, we never hugged in our family, so I stand there, patting her back so lightly she probably can’t feel it.


Yu-Han (Eugenia) Chao was born and grew up in Taipei, Taiwan. She received her BA from National Taiwan University and MFA from Penn State. The Backwaters Press published her poetry book, We Grow Old, in 2008. To see more of her writing and artwork, please visit http://www.yuhanchao.com

Read an interview with Eugenia here.