The Meaning of Hands by Abha Iyengar

  1. Fateh had been in the ICU for the last two weeks. The virus came unannounced. Three weeks ago, before the onslaught of the second wave, he had travelled to complete some pending work. The driver had been hired, the car was ours, and all necessary precautions were taken. The gloves, the masks, the sanitizers, the distancing, everything was followed, but somewhere out there, Fateh had caught it and brought it home. Two days after his visit to the world outside, the fever arrived. Then the dry cough and the weakness and the fall in oxygen levels, and within the week, he had to be rushed to hospital. In the crisis that befell Delhi in the second wave of Covid-19, no beds were to be found. Our daughter, Sonia did a lot of cold calling and stringpulling and finally a bed in an ICU was managed in a hospital far off from where we lived.

 

  1. Fateh held my hands to his face before he left. “I want to take you with me,” he said. He tried to inhale deep and broke out into a cough. I finally pulled my hands away and washed them twice immediately afterwards because I had to; I was the only cook since no house-help was allowed now. Our little grandchildren were with us along with our daughter. Everyone was in danger, and we were all quarantined at home.Fateh was dying slowly before my eyes. I could see it as I face-timed with him. The nurse held the mobile for him as he gazed at me and whispered. He just repeated, as though this gave him life, “I want to touch you, Babli. I want to bring your hands to my face and smell…the garlic and the asafoetida…” The nurse did not raise her eyebrows. There were no secrets or surprises in the ICU. I saw the tears rolling down his cheeks and could not wipe them away with these hands.

 

  1. I walked like a zombie, smelling my hands, holding them out and staring at them, wondering what he saw in them, wanting to chop them off and send them to him. I cooked what I could and hid my tears from Sonia and her twins.

 

  1. Fateh had said on the day I cooked for him for the first time after our wedding so many years ago, but I still remember his words, “I am in love with you but more with these hands. Oh, the blessing I have been given.” He had held my hands open, face-up, and kissed the center of each palm, then licked my masala-covered fingers clean as he gazed at me. I had squirmed with embarrassment and delight. To this day, I have not forgotten the look in his eyes. He gave me the same look yesterday night before his eyes closed. It travelled to me via the screen and covered me with love.

 

  1. I had been counting the days, waiting for his return home. I had been thinking of the magnificent dishes I would cook for him when he returned. I had not discussed this with Sonia. I did not want her to think I had gone crazy. Perhaps I had, a bit, knowing in my heart that all this thinking of cooking and making the air redolent with the smell of the spices Fateh loved was useless. Knowing in my heart that the man who once blew hot, strong, insistent kisses on my spice-covered hands was in the ICU, laboring for breath.

 

  1. “I will cook for him whatever he wants…whatever he wants…oh, Rabba, just send my Fateh home to me… ” I closed my eyes and prayed, my hands held cupped and close together in front of my chest as I rocked back and forth on folded knees on the carpet.

 

  1. This morning I knew, even before they gave me the news, that Dr. Fateh Singh was no more. Sonia would arrange what needed to be done. I left it to her capable hands. Her husband was away in Australia and would only return when the pandemic was over, so she was handling things alone. I was just grateful she was here.

 

  1. This morning, holding Sonia’s two-year olds close, I made them smell my hands again and again and asked them, “Do you smell Bade Papaji here?” They looked at me in wonder, not understanding anything, but hugged me tight as my tears fell, sizzling hot and unabated.

 

  1. One day I would tell them of the love between a man called Fateh and a woman called Babli, and they would know the meaning of hands. How hands that smell of cooking and spices hold the flavors of love.

 

  1. I study each finger of my hand. I turn my hands this way and that against the light that filters through the curtains. I notice how the breeze plays with the curtains, making them move this way and that. And when the breeze stops, the curtains are still.
photograph by Abha Iyengar

 

Leaning away by Keith Nunes

Both of them tired of the meandering, of the circular arguments. Each wondering who will give up first, stop it like a dead-end.

*

He feels, he tells her, lonely even with her in the room. ‘It’s the Covid thing, everyone’s anxious’, she says, batting a fly away.

He says there’s a distance in the confinement. ‘If you’re looking for an excuse to walk, then take it,’ she says.

*

Him standing in the door way, leaning against the frame, because he can’t lean on her anymore.

*

Neither as certain as they were the year before.

Before.

 

Fences by Isabelle Lloydd

You try not to sleep in. Or the days shut their coffin lids and there’s still sleep in your eyes. Tide lines, crusting. Cheek and jowl faces, static colours. Ground control to Major Tom. The internet nurses its battle wounds. You try to re-enact a funny moment, but you’re dislocated, all video game pixels. Octopus limbs, lipstick teeth. It feels like you’ll never escape this bordered life.

You don’t want to think about it. Thinking has too many complexities right now. You get lost. Over your head, deep in the dark forest lost. A wrong turn in a warped fairy tale with no Prince Charming where the trees end. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe lockdown is a game of hide and seek where you find yourself and lose the social constructs. Only, you didn’t think you were lost before now.

You imagine the feeling of grabbing someone’s hand through an A4 of glass. Of holding somebody’s calluses and cold fingertips. The cartography of palms breaking into a sweat. You think of them as a sanitized person, because they are greasy skinned and smell like a hospital. They are masked and muffled, you feel sightless when they speak for you can’t see their mouth. Swaddled and sweating, a single-use burial ground.

A furred head sinks into your lap with eyes swimming in a please, so you mask up slowly and take the dog out for a walk. It’s a dozy animal, legs akin to bent circus batons, slumping across the park. A tūī’s voice breaks on the high note and its feathers sparkle slightly in the thinning sunlight. Your dog’s throat wobbles like jelly, snared on a bark it can’t set free. Inexplicably, tears puddle in your eyes and the world succumbs to the milkiness of sea glass. The sun dismounts from its steed like Humpty Dumpty. Bloodied egg yolk, the breakfast of the evening, a frier going full tilt. There’s a sense of drowning in this red tape city.

In the flat again and a neighbour is singing to Elvis. Inside of you something is swelling and rearing. Tiny and atop your father’s feet. Dancing. Just dancing. “But I can’t help falling in love with you”. People shift as ghosts in your kitchen. They make you smile. Your phone is dug out of a sock drawer and there’s a message on the screen. Sending love. It’s time to call Mum. She picks up after three rings and her voice is wispy like smoke. Curdled edges tainted in sadness, joy, and relief. There is a stubble of tears on your cheeks but it’s okay.

Deep in your chest, a shy feeling of happiness shifts its dormant head.

Mania — art by Isabelle Lloydd. About the art:  I painted Mania (oil & acrylic paint on canvas) during lockdown in 2020. It’s a portrait of lockdown stimulation and I just slashed paint around for the sake of catharsis and hunted for vivid colours, nothing quiet or soft. You had to see it, it had to be brighter than the furniture in a room. I didn’t spend hours over it, so I like how it really simply reflects an emotional outlet that isn’t carefully skilful, curated or soaked in realism. You can still see the canvas fabric through the paint. I love that. Hysteria and cabin fever. My friends said it looked frightening. 

 

Twisted sisters and neighbouring nasties by Sandra Arnold

Despite the blue sky, the sunlight on the leaves of the plum tree, the birdsong, the music, the photographs of Tessa mounted on a board showing all the decades of her ninety years of life, Liz was all too aware of the vibes emanating from Jeff’s family who looked as if they’d been dragged kicking and screaming to the memorial. Her daughter Serena and Jeff had not only worked hard in the two weeks since Tessa’s death to create this tribute, Liz reflected, they’d also worked hard for the whole of the previous year to help her remain independent. When Jeff’s mother Rachel died eighteen months ago the shock of losing her caused a rapid decline in Tessa’s health. Jeff and Serena took over responsibility for her. They drove her to medical appointments, organised a new hearing aid, glasses, cell phone, a cleaner, Meals on Wheels and a Driving Miss Daisy taxi service after she lost her license over a car crash. They visited her and made daily phone calls, trying to fill the gap that Rachel had left.

“At least the stroke took her quickly,” Jeff said, his voice cracking. “At least she didn’t suffer.” He described the kind of person his Aunt Tessa had been, sharp-tongued, yes, but kind and generous; the adventures her life had taken her on ‒  cook for a gang of shearers in the Australian outback, conductress on a tram in Wellington, training as a milliner and creating beautiful hats. “Dad wanted me to work in his garage with him fixing engines, working with tools and oil cans, but I was happier with Aunt Tessa in her workroom playing with all the gorgeous fabrics,” he said.

Nigel, Jeff’s father, glared at the grass. When Jeff choked up Serena moved to his side and read from his speech until his breathing steadied. Nigel’s scowl sank deeper into his forehead.

Jeff read out tributes from friends and neighbours of Tessa who couldn’t attend the memorial. One of Jeff’s sisters, Bev, who’d flown down from Wellington, spoke about her memories of Aunt Tessa and ended with saying how much she had adored her. The other sister, Val,  rolled her eyes.

When the tributes were finished Liz  dragged her eyes away from  Jeff’s family and spoke to the assembled mourners. “Jeff and Serena wanted the memorial here in our garden because Tessa loved to come here. She joined us for our New Year celebration, just two weeks before she died. We sat here under the plum tree. She told me it made her happy to see  Serena and Jeff together. She said the reason she had never married was because she’d never found anyone she wanted to spend her whole life with, although she’d had plenty of offers. So she’d decided at the age of forty to work at two jobs to make enough money to buy a house and become independent. She talked about how much she missed Rachel and how Jeff and Serena made her feel that she still had  a family. The last thing she said to me out here in the garden was, ‘Liz, I can hear the birds singing.’ She had a big smile on her face. That is how I’ll remember her.”

Jeff then played Tessa’s favourite song I did it my way. While the song played there was surreptitious mopping of eyes, though not of Val’s eyes, Liz noted, remembering that  Tessa had told her Val hadn’t spoken to her since an angry phone call six months ago about an issue on which Val felt Tessa had no right to express an opinion. Something flashed at the side of Liz’s eye. She turned her head to see a glistening spider’s web strung between the branches of the plum tree. She noted the intricate patterns the spider had woven and thought how deceptively delicate the web looked in the sunlight. A fly flew straight into the centre and stuck fast, struggling uselessly. Liz watched until the buzzing grew fainter and stopped. When the song ended there was a collective sigh and everyone stood and moved over to the tables to get some food.

One of Tessa’s neighbours said to Liz, “I lived next door to Tessa for fifty years. I knew her very well. I was dreading this day, but it’s been  beautiful, funny and kind, just like Tessa.”

Jeff’s  cousin, Tristan, piling food on his plate, told Liz how lucky she and Alan were to live in this place. “Life must be so tranquil here,” he said. “The city’s full of nutters.”

Liz said that rural villages had their share of odd individuals too. She told him about the man who’d threatened to shoot their dog if he chased his cats one more time, and the man who had videoed his young wife with hitchhikers he’d picked up and brought home for the purpose. “We offered her sanctuary at our house for the year we went overseas and we slapped a trespass notice on her husband,” she said. “However, she invalidated the notice after she phoned him to invite him over because she was lonely. She nursed him during his last illness when his family abandoned him and she slept with his corpse for three days until his funeral. She spent a whole night sleeping on his grave in the cemetery. She told us she had hoped to freeze to death there.”

Tristan’s mouth dropped open. “Nooo! You’re making this up!”

“Oh, truth can be stranger than fiction,” Liz said.

Later in the afternoon Tristan went with Liz and Alan to the garden gate to wave goodbye to the departing guests. He was the last one to leave. As he got into his car a cyclist on the opposite side of the road suddenly veered across. He leapt off his bike and hurled it down in front of Tristan’s car and banged on the window yelling at Tristan to wind it down. Tristan asked why he should and the man screamed “You know why!” Tristan reversed and drove off at speed. The man chased him down the street on his bike before throwing himself on the grass verge and beating it with his fists.

“Who on earth …?” Liz said, horrified.

“A tranquil inhabitant,” said Alan.

“Not funny,” said Liz.

As they walked back into the garden they saw Jeff bailed up in a corner by Bev, Val and Nigel demanding to know what was in Tessa’s will. “She made you her executor,” Bev was saying, “so you must know.”

“I knew they’d pull something like this as soon as they got him on his own,” Liz said, moving towards the group, “Where’s Serena?”

Alan put a restraining hand on her arm. “It’s Jeff’s family,” he said. “Let him deal with them.”

Bev’s voice, shrill with annoyance, drowned out the birdsong. “Aunt Tessa said she was going to leave her house to you, but no matter what the will states you need to share everything with us. Val and I are leaving our partners so we need the money.”

Nigel added, “We all knew she had stashes of cash hidden around the house. That needs to go into the pot.”

Jeff told them this was not the time or place to discuss these things as Aunt Tessa had been dead only two weeks and they all needed time to grieve.

“She was a spiteful old bitch,” Val shot back. “I’ll bet she’s left all her money to the Cats Protection League.”

The following week the sisters got their copies of the will from Tessa’s lawyer. The contents of the house and the money in Tessa’s bank account had been left to them and the house had been left to Jeff. The fact they’d inherited a large sum of money should have kept them happy, Jeff told Serena. But it didn’t. Their fury was incendiary. Jeff repeated that they needed to abide by the terms of the will as these were Tessa’s wishes. A stream of angry emails from Bev followed and several visits from Nigel. Each time Serena spotted him coming up their drive she was glad they’d taken the precaution of keeping the blinds closed and that their front door had mirror glass in the panels.

Jeff emailed his sisters to ask them to let him know when they wanted to look through the house to claim any of the contents, after which he would donate the remaining items to the Salvation Army. Bev emailed that Jeff was not to be allowed in the house while she and Val  checked the contents. She supposed, she added, that he’d taken the stashes of cash for himself. Jeff’s response was to put a padlock on the garden gate of Aunt Tessa’s house and he changed the locks on the front and back doors. He and Serena sorted through all the drawers and cupboards and threw out shelves of mouldy and expired food and donated hundred of tins of food to the Salvation Army. Tessa had been a hoarder, but then often forgot what she’d hoarded. They donated her clothes to the Cats Protection League and weeded and watered the garden.

Tessa’s neighbour phoned Jeff one afternoon to say that Nigel and Val were at the gate of the house and were trying to break the padlock. The neighbours had warned them off, but Nigel told them to mind their own business. He left a message on Jeff’s phone to say if Jeff didn’t appear at the house with the key that afternoon he would break the padlock.

That night Serena dreamed of an old house where each of the rooms she entered burst into flames. The cause, in her dream, was the ancient heater Tessa had used to warm up her cold rooms. Jeff wrote to the lawyer asking him to remind his father and sisters that breaking in was illegal.

On Sunday Tessa’s neighbour rang Jeff to say Nigel and Val were back at Tessa’s house again and had taken the gate off its hinges. They were trying out keys at the front door. The neighbours called the police. When they arrived on the scene Val lied that it was her property and that she’d forgotten her key. The neighbour took the police inside her own house and informed them of the truth. They said it was a civil matter, not a police matter and advised her to tell Jeff and Serena to take out a trespass notice.

Liz and Alan told their neighbours about the man on the bike who’d threatened Tristan after the memorial. One of them said it was probably Marty who lived at the edge of the village and whose neighbours had placed a restraining order on him. “Nice guy when he’s on his meds,” he said. A week later their water tanks ran dry. Alan found the water valve at the top of their drive had been turned off. A call to the Council assured him they hadn’t done it. Alan told Liz there was no proof it was Marty, so they’d better let the matter drop for now. That night Liz dreamt that their house was on fire with no water available to extinguish the flames.

Val and Bev sent a letter to Jeff via their lawyer demanding entry to the house, but prohibiting Jeff from being present.

The man next door to Serena and Jeff’s house threw a bag of human faeces over the fence into their garden with a note: Have a happy life. They rang the police who went to see Mr Poo and warned him to behave. Serena did some sums and calculated that with the sale of their house and Tessa’s they could afford to move out of this neighbourhood. She filled out a trespass notice against Jeff’s sisters.

Next morning the lawyer told Serena and Jeff that Probate had been granted. He advised caution, given the sisters’ hostility, until it was determined whether or not they wanted to challenge the will.

On their way home Jeff said. “I don’t have a family anymore, do I?”

Serena thought of all the birthday and Christmas celebrations in Jeff’s family home when his mother had been alive.

That night she dreamed of a clock with its mechanism exposed. When all the cogs were revolving in the same direction it was easy to predict how the circle would keep turning, but when  one cog shifted from its axis it was no longer possible to determine the new trajectory. Next day she rang Liz to tell her about the dream.

After the phone call with Serena, Liz took her cup of tea out onto the verandah. She sipped it slowly, watching the sun sink behind the mountains. The sky turned pink, the clouds tinged with gold, and the birds returned to their nests. A hawk began its slow circuit over the fields, gliding and dipping. Liz watched its sudden dive to the ground. It disappeared from view for a second and then made its swift upward trajectory. It held fast to whatever was in its claws.

 

Sandra Arnold lives in Canterbury, New Zealand. She is the author of five books including three novels, a non-fiction work and a collection of flash fiction.  Her work has been widely published and anthologised in New Zealand and internationally, placed and short-listed in various competitions and received nominations for the Pushcart Prize, Best Microfiction and Best Small Fictions. She has a PhD in Creative Writing from Central Queensland University, Australia. www.sandraarnold.co.nz

Abha Iyengar has been writing flash fiction since 2003. She is an internationally published poet, author, essayist and British Council certified creative writing mentor. She has eight published books to her credit. Her flash fiction and micro-fiction has been published in several international literary journals and magazines. Her flash fiction collections are Flash Bites, Many Fish to Fry and The Full Platter (2021). She has also curated and edited two flash fiction anthologies titled Kintsugi and Skin. Website: www.abhaiyengar.com

Isabelle Lloydd is a teenager who does not have TikTok! In 2021 she was published in the  Flash Frontier and selected for publication in the NZ Redraft competition. She has placed second within question and age category for the University of Canterbury’s School of Law Essay Competition and seventh for Scenario Writing within age category in the Future Problem Solving International Competition. She was chuffed to receive a Gifted Learners Award from the Ministry of Education to fund further language studies in 2022.

Keith Nunes (Aotearoa/New Zealand) was nominated for Best Small Fictions 2019 and the Pushcart Prize. He’s had poetry, fiction, haiku and visuals published around the globe. He creates to stay sane, to help him breathe.