Clifford Garstang is the editor of Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet, a new anthology from Press 53. He won the 2013 Library of Virginia Literary Award for Fiction for his novel in stories What the Zhang Boys Know (Press 53, 2012). He is also the author of a story collection, In an Uncharted Country (Press 53, 2009), and the editor of Prime Number Magazine. He has served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Korea, practiced international law in Singapore, Chicago, and Los Angeles, and worked as a legal reform consultant in Almaty, Kazakhstan. He holds an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte and currently lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.
Excerpts from Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet
Press 53 © 2014
From “The Boy with Fire in His Mouth” (Uganda)
By William Kelley Woolfitt
My father called to say that my mother had died in her sleep, unexpectedly but peaceably, and that now he could eat, drink, and make merry. He manufactured security gates that trucks of bandits could not ram through.
He said my mother had died holding one hand over her eye, the other arm held out, three fingers extended. Tell me if you see the letter E. An optometrist’s gestures. She had crusaded against river blindness, the plague of groundnut and plantain farmers who lived near rivers, where bred the tiny flies that deposit larvae in human tissue, causing lizard skin, leopard skin, and at last, irreversible scarring of the cornea.
I hung up the phone. I wished that I could have seen my mother again, given her a final chance to tell me if there was anything I could do to make her happy, anything that was within my powers. Though she didn’t believe she should be made happy, or that I had any useful skills. She considered me a selfish middle-aged nobody, no wife, no child, no spine, no guts.
I flew to the country of my childhood with a suitcase of eyeglasses.
From “Rue Rachel” (Canada)
By David Ebenbach
When she woke up on the train, lying across two seats under her mink coat, her turquoise sneakers poking out into the aisle, Rachel for a minute didn’t know where she was. Dizzy from the sleep and the pills, she lifted up on an elbow and looked out the window at fields of snow. “My god,” she said. She was supposed to be in a class, Psychology or Econ, depending what time it was, but instead she was on her way to Montreal. Rachel let her head fall back down, her long dark hair spreading around her.
The only reason she was going to see Adrien was because she was worried about him and what was happening to him up there. It wasn’t like she was with him, though she had mentioned him significantly to that guy on the train who had helped her with her bag, just so there was no mistake about her being interested in anything.
“My boyfriend should be here helping me,” she had said, popping a gum pop at her helper. “But he’s in Montreal, at McGill. That’s why I’m going.”
The man lifting her bag, red-headed and scruffy and with paint on his clothes, said, “Great,” like he meant that it was really great.
“Yeah,” she said. “He needs me.” She knew Adrien was hanging out with guys who were heavy into clubbing and other things. Even after a month, when he came back down to visit, he was all skinny and distracted.
Rachel hated the train. She went back to sleep and slept as much as she could, and in between naps she woke up with itchy skin and a sense of everything happening slowly. She knew about side effects. Her father was a doctor. Twice she found the scruffy red-headed man, who was reading some book, and she sat down across the aisle and told him things about herself.
From “The Ecstatic Cry” (Antarctica)
By Midge Raymond
One of our gentoo chicks is missing.
I flip through our field notebook to find Thom’s chart of the colony, then match nest to nest. According to our records, the chick was two weeks old, but now the rocky nest is empty, the adult penguins gone. I search but find no body; its disappearance must have been the work of a predatory skua. When skuas swoop down to snatch chicks or eggs, they leave little behind.
I move away from the colony and sit on a rock to make some notes. That’s when I hear it—a distinctly human yelp, and a thick noise that I have only heard once in my life and never forgotten: the sound of bone hitting something solid.
I stand up and see a man lying in the snow, a red-jacketed tourist from the M/S Royal Albatross, which dropped its anchor in our bay this morning. He’d fallen hard, landing on his back and apparently narrowly missing a gentoo, which is now scurrying away. The man doesn’t move.
I hold still for a moment, hoping he will get up. When I see a spot of red spreading in the snow underneath his head, I start toward him.
Fifteen other tourists are within thirty yards, yet no one else seems to notice. They’re still up the hill, listening to their ship’s naturalist, the whirs and blips of their digital cameras obscuring all other sounds on the island.
But my research partner, Thom, must have seen something; he gets to the man first. And now a woman is scrambling guardedly down the same hill, apparently taking care, despite her hurry, to avoid the same fate.
I turn my attention to the man. His blood is an unwelcome sight, bright and thin amid the ubiquitous dark-pink guano of the penguins, and replete with new bacteria, which could be deadly for the birds. I stifle an urge to start cleaning it up.
From “Comfort Me with Apples” (Israel)
By Rochelle Distelheim
Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples: for I am sick of love. ~ Song of Solomon 2:5
1993. Jerusalem. This is not a happy story, it does not end well, but it is my story, and I am here to tell it.
Allow me to introduce myself: Manya Zalinikov. Zalinikova, if I use the feminine form. Also, my husband, Yuri, my daughter, Galina. Olim, this is who we are, new Israelis. Since six months, we are here from our home in St. Petersburg, Russia for this reason: to live like Jews. This is what Yuri tells us. Learn to be Jewish, he says, after a lifetime of knowing that the less Jewish one is, the safer one is; after coming from a country where being Jewish is a birth defect.
The old Soviet Union is dead, the new Russia is a difficult place, but not as difficult as Israel. This country is like no other. It takes you in, yet you are never in, as a sabra—a native-born Jew—is in.It takes you in, and then it breaks your heart.
Israelis are proud people—chauvinists, my Hebrew language teacher called them. They want everyone who comes here from another country to love it. I have tried. I have passed dislike.I have passed distrust and confusion, without yet arriving at love.
In Russia I was a concert pianist, when I could find work; Yuri, a mathematician at The Academy, working with false identity papers one can buy for cash, papers with fancy gold stamps and a false religion: Christian. Galina was allowed to attend college, we were allowed a small dacha in a forest of pine trees. Here in Jerusalem I perform on the piano in a supper club, The White Nights, owned by a Russian with a murky background, meaning rich, and silent as to his history. Yuri studies how to be a Jew with a Reb, a teacher, who is brilliant, who knows he is brilliant, and considers me a creature who is beyond his powers of rescuing. Galina is at the university and, unless she marries, in danger of turning into a soldier, as happens with all Israeli young people, except—and here there is irony—the fiercely religious.
I begin at the beginning, a day on which Amit, a clever young television director, of more than average good looks and intelligence, was rehearsing his people on the set of a not-yet-opened television show, JSingles, that matches young Israeli women with young Israeli men, everyone hoping for marriage. You may wonder why Galina did not put herself forward for this endeavor. My daughter requires hours to select a pair of shoes, a bracelet. Imagine the time she would require to select a husband.
From “Visiting Chairman Mao” (China)
By Jocelyn Cullity
It was a cool day, a good day to visit Tiananmen Square. But Xiao Li did not feel like it was a good day. She’d been in line for over an hour to visit the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall in the Square, and she shouldn’t have worn high heels, when she preferred running shoes. Li had also offered to carry the knapsack of her client, Claire, while Claire went for a stroll, and the strap bit into her shoulder.
At least the vendors had left them alone. Such chatter boxes. If they hadn’t insisted on mocking Li’s Shaanxi dialect, they might have sold more than two postcards to Li and an old Olympics keychain to the tourist, Claire. It would have passed the time to look at their things while the long line inched forward, but Li had ignored their foolish prattle, telling them to go away.
Li adjusted the knapsack and scanned the Square, the kite-flyers and the perambulators, for her client. She shifted her weight from the ball of one foot to the other. From her shirt pocket, she removed the two postcards she’d purchased to send to her family, who lived southwest of Beijing, far from the capital. The faulty English text on the back of the postcard showing the Forbidden City in Beijing was an embarrassment. The other, of busy stores and restaurants in Beijing’s Qianmen area, captivated Li. How amazed her grandmother would be. “It’s quite chilly,” Claire said, suddenly standing beside her in the line with her hands in her sweatshirt pockets. The baggy sweatshirt looked old, the word “peace” on the front almost faded away. She wore a red bandanna, small, circular sunglasses, and her face was covered in freckles, the color of tea leaves. She didn’t appear to be rich. Her jeans were ripped, and she sported a white rubber bracelet.
“Thanks for carrying that,” Claire said. She took the knapsack from Li and nodded at what was now a shorter queue ahead of them. “It’s been what, over an hour? Sure takes long enough to see the guy.”
Li couldn’t get used to her informality. She pointed to a sign on the concrete building. “That is the handwriting of Mr. Hua Guofeng, who supervised the building of the mausoleum after Chairman Mao’s death in 1976.”
“Ah, yes,” Claire said, adjusting the red bandanna. It was a neat contraption, the cloth tight across her head, tucked behind each ear, the perfectly-folded triangle at the back, down the center of her hair. It was a type of red scarf, but different from the one Li and her classmates had worn during childhood.
From “The Widow’s Tale” (Italy)
By Joseph Cavano
If ever you have been to the small, farming village of Malpaso, you well may have heard the story of the widow and her daughter. The great Caesar himself led his legions through the countryside here, and if you are lucky you still may stumble upon the ruins of an ancient aqueduct that once brought water to its inhabitants. Today, its days of glory long since having passed, it is a village waiting to die. Most of its young men are gone now, killed in the war or drawn to the prosperous North, or to a distant America with its streets lined with gold.
Daytimes are too hot for the old ones to venture outside, so you are unlikely to see anyone until evening when the ghosts of the village make their way to the square. Evenings there are a welcome relief from the oppressive heat and the monotony of days that pass so uneventfully it is nearly impossible to tell them apart.
And so, they come. All that remains of a once proud people. Arms interlocked—men with men—women with women—they slowly make their way into the square and its promise of a glass of cool mineral water or, if the monthly checks have arrived, a bottle of one of the bittersweet sodas that seem to mirror the villagers’ very existence.
Once inside, you can see the old Opera House. It is a sad reminder of better days. Not a note has been sung there for twenty years. Its only visitors now are the bats that cling at night to its silent walls.
She comes on Sundays. It is only then that she can rouse herself to make her way to the church of San Angelo where she was baptized and married, and where seven years ago, Father Antonelli prayed over her daughter’s body and commended her soul to the eternal care of our Lord.
From “When Stars Fell Like Salt before the Revolution” (Iran)
By Jill Widner
Sylvie stands at the window, wrapped in a blanket, the dawn in the distance, brightening the dusting of snow that has fallen overnight in the courtyard below. The dun-colored grass is frozen. The stone fountain and concrete pools, empty and scattered with leaves.
The second-floor rooms on the other side of the courtyard are larger than the room Sylvie shares with her mother. They have balconies, each with a private ceiling, a mosaic of tile in a vaulted arch that is the same turquoise blue as the dome-shaped roof of the mosque, visible through the branches of the trees. At the top of the dome, a weathervane, like an axe-head in the shape of a crescent, gleams in the sun like a coin.
And then there is no mosque. No rose hips dangling from bare branches. A girl is lifting her hand. She’s smiling at Sylvie and turning it over, she touches the mound at the base of her fingers where the skin is marked with crosshatched lines like ideographs she can’t read, and the girl won’t tell her what they say.
When Sylvie awakens she finds a note on her mother’s bed, instructing her to meet her downstairs in the Caravanserai Room where tea is served. She opens the curtains and stares through the glass. There are the pools, scattered with leaves. There is the mosque through the trees. She turns her hands over. There are the cross-hatchings like number signs etched in the skin.