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Category Archives: Short Stories
It was a cold and starry night and the reindeer were tired. After circling around the globe to bring presents to children, all they wanted was to go back to a nice warm barn for a well-deserved sleep.
Last stop boys, said Santa, before shaking the reins, and the reindeer groaned.
Where to now? said a grumpy one with a red nose.
We’re going to Thailand, boys.
Thailand? But they don’t even have snow there and wait…do they believe in Christmas? said a small reindeer in a piping voice.
Well, they may not have real Christmas trees and fireplaces and snow but they are still expecting us. Besides, I could use a beer right now and a day or two on the beach. From what I remember last year, it’s nice and hot there this time of the year and I could do with a bit of sun on my old bones. And the best thing is no more going down the chimneys! These guys don’t have any, so that will save me some trouble. I was getting tired of trying to squeeze through those things, said Santa patting his ample belly.
All we have to do is deliver the gifts to the Mall and the children will find them afterwards.
With a hearty laugh Santa shook the reins and the reindeer gathered their strength for the last trip. As they were getting closer to Bangkok, the last snowflakes on their coats melted and a pleasant drowsiness overtook the animals.
Hey, this is not bad, said a white reindeer with sparkling antlers.
Kinda windy, said another.
At least it’s not cold AND windy, shot back Sparkly.
Is there something to eat? said another.
There’s plenty if you like it spicy, said a reindeer behind Rudolph.
Do they have cookies here, I wonder? said Rudolph.
Hey, a coconut shake sounds nice, with lots of milk and…
Cookies! said Rudolph.
Yeah, yeah, we’ll find you some cookies, replied a voice at the back.
Meanwhile, Santa was getting ready: the heavy fur trimmed coat was replaced by a red and white t-shirt which barely covered his belly.
Hmm, I never should have listened to those Thai girls. One size only, sir, good for you, sir, you look so handsome, sir! Bah, it was only 199 baht, what did I expect, eh?
With a last pull at the t-shirt who was stubborn enough to ride just above his belly button, Santa adjusted his red beach shorts and rummaged under the seat for his slippers.
Where did I put those things? Hey Rudolph, do you know where my flip-flops are?
No, came a strained voice at the front.
Hey guys, is it getting hotter here or what? This sleigh weighs like a ton or something.
Tell me about it, said Sparkly, his tongue hanging out.
Are we there yet? said the small reindeer.
Almost, said Santa, who was rummaging under the seat.
There you are, cried he at last. My flip flops! Pink, of all colors! he added with a disappointed shake of his head. Never mind, Thais love bright colors. Pink will do.
Ready boys? he asked, and six voices answered back: Ready!
The descent was slow. Between the densely packed buildings and temples, the cars, motorcycles, tuk-tuks and bicycles, Santa’s entourage swooped down on the city, almost colliding with a motorcycle on which four people were squeezed like biscuits it a pack.
Whew, that was close, said Santa. Careful boys, we don’t want any accidents.
The reindeer were too busy trying to avoid the traffic. Although nobody could see them or the sleigh, it didn’t mean they couldn’t be hit. As they came around a corner, the lights of a big building dazzled their eyes and Santa pulled the reins.
Here we are…at last…he said, climbing out of the sleigh and patting each reindeer in turn, smoothing their fur.
Be good boys and don’t forget, no moving during the day or you’ll freak people out. I’ll come back tonight.
With cookies, said a voice.
And coconut shakes, said another.
No problem, said Santa with a wink.
The street is like a great storyteller, waiting for me whenever I have the time to listen to one of its stories. Sometimes it’s just a jumble of words and images but every now and then it tells me a story, a short fragment from its vast collection. That day I listened and it told me about the girl with the marble eyes.
The people bring the street to life. They ride the motorcycles and push the food carts along the crowded sidewalks, or travel in a songteaw like me. There isn’t much space in one of those vehicles but ten people can usually squeeze together on the small benches. A few days ago I was in one (in my imagination I pretend they are carriages and I’m riding through open country fields and not in a polluted, crowded city) took out my book (The Thirteenth Tale) and got lost in it until a sudden braking made the words jump from the page and I looked for some fixed thing to grab hold of. Then I looked straight ahead and totally forgot my book. She was sitting across from me, our knees almost touching because of the cramped space, and the first thing I noticed were her eyes. Somehow they reminded me of the aristocratic Siamese cats I’d seen in a cartoon as a child, with their upward elongated slanted eyes, the pupils a rich dark brown that was almost black, and so perfectly round and big it seemed almost impossible that the eyes themselves could contain them. They looked like two shiny marbles and I was afraid that the next gentle shake of her head would make them tumble into her lap. Gliding easily from left to right, I imagined them rolling slowly over the smooth surface of the eye.
I tried hard not to stare so I shifted my gaze to the woman sitting next to her. She was older and fatigue had marked her eyes, making the light brown pupils look very much like a piece of cloth faded from too much washing, the whites streaked with tiny red lines and actually not white at all but a sickly yellow. She blinked and looked away and my gaze returned to the girl with the marble eyes. She never once looked straight at me but always somewhere behind me and into the street. Her eyes were always moving and I became absorbed with this new occupation of watching them glide effortlessly from side to side. Hands folded neatly in her lap, the blue and white uniform of a schoolgirl, straight black hair tied up in a ponytail with a brown piece of lace; face devoid of any makeup, a mouth with full lips slightly thrust upward and the flat small nose common to the Asians, a wide forehead but not high, and those eyes that seemed to dominate all her other facial features.
I looked at the book in my lap but its magic pull had been broken so I raised my eyes to her again.
The white surrounding the pupil had almost the crispness of the snow, making a brilliant contrast with the brown of the pupils. Her expression was neutral, serious. I could not see the trace of a smile nor the shadow of sadness, no movement of lips, no movement of hands. She just sat there almost like a statue if not for the motion of those dark shiny pupils: left to right and left again.
I had to get off, my stop was close, and I fumbled for a coin with which to pay for my trip. Pushed the small button on the roof of the songteaw and braced myself for the customary lurch and brake. Never get up until it comes to a complete stop, that’s one lesson I learned the hard way. Got off, placed my coin in the outstretched palm of the driver and started walking, leaving the girl with the marble eyes to carry her story forward.
The water broke in circles, each smaller than the first, chasing each other until they vanished and the surface became still once more. I watched as a new circle formed just a bit further and first a beak, then a small black head pierced the liquid surface of the pond. It turned to one side and then back again only to disappear quickly underneath, leaving a trail of ripples behind.
The bird came out with a splash, its body dripping with water, and flew to a piece of wood that was sticking out in the center of the pond. It stood there small and wet and black, beating its wings against the wind. After a while it went into the water again, only to surface a few meters from where it had started, then dived and came out a few seconds later in another part of the pond.
The day opened around like a small bud in the path of the sun. The wind caressed the tall grass at the edge of the pond making it bend slowly to the ground in a humble salute. Butterflies scattered, delicate winged creatures bearing nature’s artwork on their backs in bright shades of orange. The air was unscented and heavy with humidity.
The mighty sun started to climb in the sky and send his rays to warm the world. The little bird was swimming rapidly underwater leaving a trail of mud behind, like a comet flying through space. It flew again to its resting place and there it stood, wings outstretched in the wind. “Welcome to my kingdom!” it said. “Welcome!”
September 03, 2006
He is the man near the river. I don’t know his name and even if I did it would be of no importance. After all, it’s just sounds and letters strung together on an invisible thread and hung around one’s neck to be worn for eternity. A chain, a burden if you like, that one has to carry for the rest of his life.
He is just…. there. I see him every day, always at the same time and in the same place and almost always doing the same thing. He is sitting on a low stool, his naked brown torso and huge belly shining with sweat that stains his gray pants. His back is slightly bent forward and the scarce gray hair he has left has been plastered to his head by the unmerciful heat. There are no shoes on his feet and the toes with misshapen nails are clearly visible. He looks straight ahead, his hands between his knees holding a piece of cloth dripping with dirty water. The soap he’s holding makes bubbles in his hands and then his hands come together, rubbing the fabric with a movement that tells of many days spent near the river with a naked torso and the sun making tiny rivers run on his bare skin.
Does he see me? I wonder. I mean does he really see me? Sometimes it feels like deja-vu seeing him there day after day, always at the same time and almost always doing the same thing over and over again. He dips the cloth in the plastic bucket, brings it up and starts cleaning it with a small brush. For a moment he seems to be looking straight at me and time stops and I try to think of something to do, maybe smile, but unmerciful time does not wait and I go, carried by my motorcycle taxi on my way home from a tiring day at work.
August 27, 2006
P.S. As you can see by the date, this story is quite a few years old. It was described exactly as I saw it and strangely enough, I got to see that man again, just a few weeks ago. He was wearing the same type of clothes and he was thinner and had lost his hair but I recognized him instantly. Funny how things work.
The other cars went by faster and faster. Her hair was being whipped back and forth across her face and no matter how hard she tried, securing it into place looked like a futile task. She glanced over at the other cars passing by, with people inside, wondering where they all go and if it’s somewhere nice and cozy like a home or a gathering of friends or some unpleasant meeting with the new boss or an overdue visit at the mother in law. Once or twice she spied a strange face staring at her intently from the window of a passing car. It appeared and disappeared before she could take a good look at it, and she felt pricked by the needle of curiosity. When the traffic slowed down for a short while, she was able to notice the woman’s round face with the hair pulled back so severely it almost looked like a second skin, revealing a large forehead.
She was a little annoyed by that look and stared back, but before she got to see the reaction of the woman, the car moved along taking the woman’s face with it. The noise of the street distracted her for a while, the motorcycles speeding by, one almost colliding with a tuk-tuk that had decided to stop just then on the side of the road, without warning. Her eyes wandered and the face of that strange woman appeared again, on the passenger window of a black Mercedes crawling along in the traffic. This time she could just make out the big eyes and full mouth before the car moved along. Was it anger in the woman’s eyes, or just a questioning look, she couldn’t be sure. All she knew was that nobody had stared at her like that and she didn’t like it, not one bit. It was almost like the guy across from her, stealing a glance every now and then when he thought she wouldn’t notice. She caught his eyes once and stared at him defiantly and he blinked rapidly and looked away.
Her phone rang and she fumbled with the purse before she found it and pushed the answering button. Whoever it was, had already hung up – wrong number probably.
Her eyes went back to watch the spectacle of the street: a motorcycle carrying a whole family, the father driving and a little boy in front of him, mother at the back with a baby in her arms, sandwiched between her and the driver. Only the man was wearing a helmet, a bright blue one, with the visor pushed back, like a knight getting ready for the tournament. Right behind came a woman pushing a food cart, a big rope of sausages swinging with the movement. Who would want to buy that, she always wondered and as usual, there was no answer. She tried to think back, to remember if she had actually seen anybody buying that kind of food from the street and couldn’t remember a single time.
A gray van approached, its windows tinted black, the face of the woman painted on its windows. This time she tried to take a good look and she found the woman frowning at her, then the face melted into sadness. Who are you and why are you sad, she wanted to ask but before she could think of anything else, her stop had come and she was getting off, not resisting one last look at the face in the window, maybe to say good-bye. She smiled, and the woman smiled too and before she knew it, the grey van had disappeared into the rushing madness.
The best way to look at the mango tree was from the bedroom balcony. From that spot she could see the leaves and the yellow moss-like flowers that seemed to adorn it almost like Christmas decorations, hanging down here and there at irregular intervals.
That was also her favorite reading spot, with the red canvas chair that could be lowered so that her back nestled comfortably and she could put her feet up on the concrete railing. In the evenings, when the leaves whispered invitingly, she used to sit there with a good book and let the breeze caress her tired body.
Late one night a big storm shook the mango tree, making it weep and bend until the branches got dangerously close to the window and she was afraid the rain would break it or lightning would strike it down but it never did and the tree always came through. Sometimes she touched the leaves, wanting to feel their smooth, thin surface under her fingers, to feel their texture. It felt good to do that, and the tree didn’t seem to mind.
In the cold season the tree started to drip, an invisible essence that made the front yard dales sticky and difficult to sweep. That was when the mangoes started to ripen and she would look up expectantly, hoping to see the tiny fruit that would grow to hang, plump and heavy and green and later on yellow, on the thin branches, making them beg under the weight. There weren’t that many fruits, and every year she hoped the tree would let her taste one and every year they fell before their time. She would find them, tiny and shriveled, in the high grass that grew at the tree’s feet, little hard pebbles just starting to curl in the shape of the mango they were supposed to grow into later. But they never did. Then Christmas would come and she would look up at the tree and at the other mango tree across the street who was bearing fruit, the green turning to yellow, ripe and ready, and she would sigh with sadness and say, maybe next year. Then one more year would pass, and then another and the mango tree did not bear one single fruit to ripeness.
One cool day, when the mango tree was all pretty with the tiny yellow flowers, the landlady came to cut the tree. She wanted to bury the small green island with the mango tree in the middle under a grave of concrete, that all-encompassing tomb which covers all trace of life. The woman pleaded, saying the house would not be the same without the tree and its shadow, and the landlady decided it was too much of a hassle anyway and gave in. And so the tree continued to live and breathe in the heavy air of the day and give a nice breeze in the evenings.
That year there seemed to be more birds in the mornings and a cooler breeze in the evenings. The tiny mangoes did not fall and she watched them with great expectation and joy. Not one fell before its time and there came one morning when the tree was heavy with fruit and she hoped to taste the rich sweet heavy flesh.
That night she dreamed she was in the mango tree and was picking the fruits one by one. There was nowhere to put them but none fell from her hands. It seemed like there were so many, as if an inexhaustible row of sweet smelling fruit was being pushed under her hands, just for her. She took one and bit into its soft flesh, her teeth sinking into the sweet, buttery fruit, the juice dripping on her right hand and down to her elbow. She felt somehow elated, like tasting a new and exotic fruit for the first time, and she kept eating until there wasn’t a single yellow fruit left. She woke up suddenly, the taste of anticipation in her mouth, and went to the doors leading to the balcony. Daylight was painting the sky a soft pink glow, and in the first few rays of the sun, she saw it nestled in the dry leaves on the ground, plump and big and yellow and she could feel the sweet taste in her mouth, left over from her feast the night before.