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    July 2009

    30. The Drowned Woman

    By Frances De Pontes Peebles

    It was the summer of the year Juscelino Kubitschek was elected president of the republic, the summer when the drought in the farmlands got worse. The summer when someone mysteriously opened all of the birdcages at the Madalena Market, and for an entire Saturday morning canaries and parrots and sabiás flew free in the square as the vendors waved their hats and makeshift nets and tried to reclaim the birds. It was the summer when my grandmother’s nurse washed ashore in front of our beach house. She wore a flowered dress and her shoes were missing. Her body was bloated and stiff, and one of her arms stood straight up in the air. No one knew what had happened to her.

    We were finishing lunch when the body came ashore. Our cousin Dorany ran into our dining room.

    “They just found a dead woman on the beach,” he panted.

    He was in his swim trunks and bare feet. I remember there was sand stuck to the hairs on his chest. My father would have never allowed Dorany into the dining room like that under normal circumstances. He put down his napkin and slid out from behind the table where he and my mother had just begun their meal. In our house, the children ate first and always at a separate table. Our meals were simple. Lunch was meat, beans, and rice. Dinners were always some kind of soup: black bean, or vegetable, or chicken, with a cup of cold milk. We were not allowed to have sugar. Every once in a while my mother made us a plain yellow cake with a small swirl of chocolate in the center, which was a luxury. Looking back I realize we were well fed, even healthy.

    My father’s untouched serving of calf brains steamed on his plate. They were white and covered with tomato sauce, which looked to me like chunks of blood. My mother ate plain rice, steamed pumpkin, and black beans, all in separate piles on her plate.

    My brothers and I stared at my father expectantly. He looked confused. I squirmed to the rim of my chair, making my skirt hike above my knees.

    “Let’s have a look, then,” he said slowly. . . . Read More.

    29. The Burners

    By Alex Burrett

    There’s a village of slaves up in the mountains who struggle to stay warm in the winter. Throughout the dark season, their owner sends them just enough wood to keep the pervading cold at bay. The serfs get a delivery of logs every fortnight, with each household receiving an equal amount; which is fair as all the families live in identical one-room lodges. There’s enough calorific energy in each bundle to keep a small fire smoldering for three hundred and thirty-six hours. It takes careful maintenance to ensure that the fire doesn’t burn too quickly and exhaust the stock. Kept ticking over at that rate, the temperature in their homes during the coldest months rises from dangerously cold to bearably chilly. Their overlord has no humane interest in helping them stave off hypothermia. He’s not bothered about their welfare. He’s happy for them to be universally miserable. He doesn’t care about them in the slightest. But it wouldn’t be in his interest for them to die. He makes most of his money from the cassiterite they hack and scrape out of the pitted mountainsides. If they get sick, he lets The Fates act as nurse, doctor and undertaker. Since rutting is their major source of entertainment, there are usually enough natural new ones to replace those that expire. And if new arrivals don’t quite keep the population stable, it’s relatively inexpensive to top the numbers up with outsiders. . . . Read More.

    28. Ma Perkins Comes to Stay

    By Ray Bradbury

    Joe Tiller entered the apartment and was removing his hat when he saw the middle-aged, plump woman facing him, shelling peas.

    “Come in,” she said to his startled face. “Annie’s out fetchin’ supper. Set down.”

    “But who—” He looked at her.

    “I’m Ma Perkins.” She laughed, rocking. It was not a rocking chair, but somehow she imparted the sense of rocking to it. Tiller felt giddy. “Just call me Ma,” she said airily.

    “The name is familiar, but—”

    “Never you mind, son. You’ll get to know me. I’m staying on a year or so, just visitin’.” And here she laughed comfortably and shelled a green pea.

    Tiller rushed out to the kitchen and confronted his wife.

    “Who in the hell is she, that nasty nice old woman?!” he cried.

    “On the radio.” His wife smiled. “You know. Ma Perkins.”

    “Well, what’s she doing here?” he shouted.

    “Shh. She’s come to help.”

    “Help what?” He glared toward the other room.

    “Things,” said his wife indefinitely.

    “Where’ll we put her, damn it? She has to sleep, doesn’t she?”

    “Oh yes,” said Anna, his wife, sweetly. “But the radio’s right there. At night she just sort of—well—‘goes back.’ ” . . . Read More.

    27. Proximity

    By Diana Spechler

    Saturday morning, Estelle doesn’t show up for treatment. In lieu of her presence is a note scrawled in magic marker: “It’s sunny out. I’d rather play than work on my ‘problems.’” Funny that she wrote “problems” in quotation marks, as if she doesn’t really have any. Estelle is twenty-one years old, stands at five feet eight inches, and weighs eighty-five pounds. She has a second personality (six-year-old Estelle), skin and hair the color of teeth, and teeth the color of sepia. Last week, she asked me to go into business with her, to collaborate on art projects and sell them at the Denver Farmer’s Market. By art projects, she meant her art therapy paintings—mostly primary-colored stick-figure families—accompanied by entries from my food journal. Eventually, she concluded, we’d have an exhibit at MoMA in New York City.

    “Very manipulative,” Dr. Rose says now, tapping the note with a long hot-pink fingernail. Dr. Rose, the shrink at the North Boulder Center for Eating Disorder Recovery, is what my mother would call “big-boned,” tall with powerful legs and a wide face. She teases her platinum blond bangs. She wears blue eye shadow. She looks like a glamour shot. But I always imagine the friends she must have, four or five other ladies with teased hair, giggling together at the food court in the mall, bright lipstick prints on plastic straws, fingers touching casually, cozily, over a cardboard boat of French fries. . . . Read More.

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