All posts by Karen Stewart

Adult 2019: Winner

The Fall Of The Kapok Tree by Veronique Bequin 

Domingo died last night. The storm didn’t kill him. He died in his bed. He died of old age with his wife Celia by his side. I wasn’t there to say goodbye. This morning, I am walking in the field behind Domingo’s house. The wide meadow lies between his house and mine. The field is on my land but Domingo’s single dairy cow often wanders there. His horse grazes here too, seeking the cool shade of the trees. I like to know they stray. 

The big storm overnight was nothing like the hurricane that hit hard three years ago. Last night’s storm raged for a few hours after I went to bed. It was all over by dawn. For a while before falling asleep again, I heard the wind and rain from my bed through the thick walls and the thin windows of my small house. I didn’t hear Domingo’s last breath. My lungs lost all their wind when Celia came to tell me of Domingo’s passing earlier today. I am walking without really breathing.

The knock at the door woke me. I still sleep in the same narrow bed I did as a boy. I am a grown man. An old man. As old as Domingo Moreira was. He died first but I won’t be far behind now. I never moved into my parents’ large bed after they both died. It didn’t seem right when I knew I would sleep alone. My bed is nearly as old as I am. My father built it when the crib grew too small for his only child. My father made much of the furniture in the house. I helped him often once I could be trusted with his tools. Mother and Father have been gone for twenty years at least. One after the other within days; the bed too large for the one left behind. I haven’t changed a thing in the house. 

Mother and Father liked Domingo. They liked the whole Moreira family. They celebrated with them all when Domingo and Celia married and started to have sons and daughters. Three sons. Two daughters. All married in turn. All with children of their own. Celia won’t want for company. Domingo made sure of that. My mother and father never asked me about giving them grandchildren. 

Celia stood at my door this morning with her face calm and her dry, dark eyes looking at me, unblinking. Perhaps, she was looking for a sign? “He passed in his sleep” she said. “He just stopped breathing. No pain. It was his time.” He just stopped breathing. Celia may have heard my chest cave in when the air seeped out and wouldn’t come back in. No. I don’t think she did. Her eyes stayed on my face. I didn’t give her any sign. We didn’t speak for a moment. Then: “He was a good man.” I said. “A good husband.” Celia said. “”That he was, Gregorio Rodriguez.” She used my name. I have not been a husband, good or otherwise. I didn’t reply. I took Celia’s hands in mine and told her to just ask if she needed anything; anything at all. She won’t ask. Her sons and her daughters, her grandsons and granddaughters, they will help. She walked away across the meadow, back to the house she shared with Domingo Moreira for close to sixty years. I went back to sit on my narrow bed and felt my heart grow so sore and tight I couldn’t weep. Domingo is gone.

When I could put one foot in front of the other again, I walked outside. Here I am now, in the field between my house and his. The air carries the muddled scents of bruised flowers and crushed leaves that come after a storm. The grasses in the meadow are wounded. The overnight rain was heavy and hit every single blade until each stem bent to the ground. The blades of grass will stand again. Already, the heat of the morning sun is stroking them back to life. The birds are back too. A pair of zunzuncitos is humming near the bruised flowers by the house. Here is a flash of a meadowlark’s bright yellow chest. I can hear the gurgly chew-chew of some martins though I don’t see them.  

I meander through the trees, some planted by my grandfather, and even his father before him. A few fruit trees are from my father’s time, mango trees and grapefruit trees carefully spaced out with a few plantain and banana trees among them.  I planted a couple of small papaya and guava trees which continue to bear fruit alongside two avocado trees. But the taller trees are my favourites.  Of course, there are several palma reals. They grow fast and strong, just like Cuba according to Fidel when he was still alive. I turn the corner furthest away from my house and closest to Domingo’s farm. That’s when I see the kapok tree. 

The storm was too much for it. It lies on its side, its branches intertwined in the wounded grass. I come to it in the morning heat. It didn’t hit any of the surrounding shrubs as it fell but left the other trees to thrive. Domingo Moreira helped me plant it. We were only young men, closer to the boys we had been than the adults we would grow into. A few days before, a neighbour had seen the flares from the Americans on the beach.  A local fisherman, he had ran all the way to the secret military base set up by Fidel to alert the soldiers there. We all knew something like that would happen. Fidel made sure we were ready. La Playa Giron is still my local beach. I no longer launch my small fishing boat from there now that I am too old, but Domingo and I set off on many a fishing trip over the years.  At least once a week if Celia didn’t need him at home. We were lucky some days, and brought in a good catch, and we sometimes came back with nothing to show. We painted the small wooden craft together every few years. Domingo always laughed at my choice of colours: bright blue and green one year; purple and red another time. Once I even opted for the loudest pink and blue I could find! It reminded me of the beautiful bee hummingbirds in my garden. When we could no longer row that boat, I missed sitting facing Domingo’s serious eyes for a whole day at a time. We started to play chess instead, eye to eye, neither of us champion material.

Domingo helped me plant the kapok tree soon after my father and I had cut down several specimens that had reached maturity. Planting new trees felt right to celebrate the invaders’ defeat. My mother and I used the fibres of the felled kapoks to replenish the mattress on my narrow bed. As it was my first attempt at using kapok fibres, Domingo came to check the finished bedding and his approval meant more to me than my own father’s silent nod. Domingo ran his large hands on the cool mattress with a smile, and that night I dreamed he was still there with me in the cool darkness of my room. He was already married then, with his first child on the way. His mother had made sure of that.

I move nearer to the fallen tree. I close my eyes to the sun, the smells of bruised flowers and wounded grasses bleed softly into my face. My old arms can’t go all the way round the trunk of the kapok tree but my head rests on the warm bark naturally. My whole body leans into the tree I planted with Domingo Moreira in April 1961. A lifetime ago. My hands are smaller than Domingo’s; my fingers more crooked, but as strong as his were. My face is against the skin of the tree, warm and rough as an unshaven chin. 

“Toco-toco-tocoro-tocororo” The sound reaches me through the trees. “Toco-toco-tocoro-tocororo”. There it is again. I don’t open my eyes. Not yet. My old man skin rests against the unshaven skin of an old tree, and I know the tocororo has come. The beautiful bird has come as Domingo and the kapok tree lay dead. “Toco-toco-tocoro-tocororo”. My mother always said the trogon bird was a harbinger of good news, that it connected whoever heard its song to higher spiritual powers. I rest my old body on the kapok tree a while longer. Perhaps, the bird is here to let me know I will soon sit face to face with Domingo Moreira again. “Toco-toco-tocoro-tocororo.” I won’t shave until that happens.

Adult 2019: 2nd Runner Up

Bhupati by Anuja Varghese

  The first time lightning struck Bhupati’s shrine to Goddess Lakshmi, it set her face on fire. The makeshift shrine was little more than the foot-high figurine of the Goddess balanced in the crumbling birdbath Maneesha had found when they moved in, overturned and filled with spiders in the patchy grass behind the rented semi. Bhupati had righted it and hosed it off, envisioning Lakshmi-Ma floating serenely on cool, clear water, surrounded by offerings of flowers and fresh fruit. But when he filled it up and placed her in, she had capsized immediately, chipping half a lotus from her third hand. He had propped her up with some loose rocks, still hopeful she could be happy, even in such a cold and brittle place as this, but soon the raccoons started arriving nightly to eat the fruit, shit in the yard, and tip over the garbage cans, and when the water froze in November, Bhupati abandoned Lakshmi to the elements. 

It was spring when the lightning struck. Bhupati was watching the storm through the sliding back doors, the rain coming down in unrelenting sheets. He could see Lakshmi out there, the red of her painted sari the only bright spot in the drenched April dusk. Maneesha was working the night shift at the hospital, leaving him to find his own dinner, which he ate standing, his fingers greasy with each fat, flaky samosa he pulled from the paper bag. It had already been raining for days, alternating between freezing drizzle, brief, angry downpours, and a kind of mist with teeth. This storm though, this was the worst he had seen it. On the other side of the chain link fence separating Bhupati’s yard from the Haitian family’s yard, their dog made nervous circles under the overhang of the roof, barking at the electricity in the air. Maybe it was a warning. 

Bhupati heard the crack before he saw the flash and behind him, the power went out in the kitchen. It went out all over Parkdale, but he didn’t know that yet. All he knew for certain was that Lakshmi was burning. His first thought was to run out and save her, in what would have been an uncharacteristic act of bravery. His hand went to the door handle and he pulled, but the onslaught of weather assailed him so violently, or so he felt, that he quickly slid the door closed again. He watched the fire in the birdbath, burning in the rain. Why didn’t the rain put the fire out? Why did only Lakshmi’s pink moon face burn, while the rest of her dripped water, untouched by flame? It was a mystery. No. It was a miracle. 

As soon as this realization occurred to him, Bhupati felt a bubbling excitement, an exhilaration flowing lava-like through his body and spilling out of his sandpaper heels so that he could not stand still. What to do? Pacing and turning and shifting from foot to foot. What to do?

Capture it. 

Bhupati spun around in his slippered feet and realized then that all the lights in the house had gone out. The lights are off but somebody’s home. He chuckled to himself at his own joke, squinting as he reached for his jacket tossed over the back of his chair, tucked in across from Maneesha’s chair, at the kitchen table. He pulled his phone from a side pocket and held it up to the glass. With his eyes, he could see the fire clearly, but through the phone camera’s lens, through the dirt-streaked, rain-spattered door, through the gusting and the pouring and the distance and the dark, there was nothing. 

“Bloody useless motherfucking…” Bhupati muttered, jabbing at buttons on the phone, opening and closing his thumb and forefinger on the screen in a futile attempt to zoom in. After several minutes of this, the battery icon began to flash red and while Bhupati went searching for a charger, the phone went dead and the fire went out. 

***

Bhupati took the streetcar to Little India and bought another Lakshmi. At the Walmart in Gerrard Square, he found an inflatable pool for children, a bicycle pump to inflate it, and in the toy section, a box of wooden fruit. He brought all these things home, and when the backyard dried out, he set up a new shrine. Maneesha watched from the kitchen, unimpressed. Bhupati thought he saw her mouth moving, but through the door, her face was a blur. He put his hand to his ear and shook his head. 

“Since when do you pray? she demanded, sliding the door open and standing with hands on rounded hips. “What’s the point of all this?” Pregnancy made her irritable. 

It was true, Bhupati had no real intention of praying to the Goddess, but believed somehow that giving her a home, caring for her, feeding her – these would be devotion enough to get them to the Hills. Bhupati waved Maneesha back inside and went back to his work. It seemed wrong to dump the first Lakshmi in the trash, so Bhupati decided to keep her, charred face and all. He placed Lakshmi #1 in the pool facing the neighbours’ house, and in front of her, placed Lakshmi #2, facing straight ahead and smiling, the gold coins glued to the palm of her second hand glinting in the sunlight. He put the fruit – and vegetables, he discovered, upon opening the box – on a metal thali and left them floating for the goddess(es) to enjoy. Sometimes, during the summer, he would bring flowers from Queen Supermarket, rip them from their stems, and add them to the pool, a goddess soup in an inflatable bowl. 

***

The second time lightning struck Bhupati’s shrine to Goddess Lakshmi, it set her hands on fire. All eight of them. The backyard had been blanketed in snow since January and by April, Bhupati had all but forgotten about the Lakshmis, buried up to their crowns, sleeping in the ice. Or maybe they were awake. Waiting. 

The storm woke Bhupati and no one else. He shuffled to the bedroom window and peered down into the backyard, all shadows and muck mixed with melting snow in the pre-dawn dark. He wasn’t sure when the rain had started, but now it came down fast and heavy, punctuated by howling wind that rattled the rusty shutters and thunder that shook the house’s bones. The lightning struck soundlessly, a single bolt zig-zagging through the rain, leaving eight fires glowing in its wake. Bhupati stared, disbelieving, the breath sucked from his body. How could it be happening? Why to him? Why again? Sweat dampened his palms, pressed to the glass and paralyzed. What to do? What to do?!

Call for help.

“Manu!” he hissed, turning his head to where she slept soundly, the baby curled into the curve of her breast. They seemed to breathe together, two halves of a whole, taking up two-thirds of his bed, replacing his chair at the kitchen table, a multi-limbed beast, always hungry, eyes on the Hills. 

Bhupati thought not to wake the child with a shout, but rather to give the woman a shake. He looked back down at the Lakshmis whose hands continued to burn, undeterred by the rain, dripping lotus petals that fell away in melted, fuchsia clumps. He backed away from the window and promptly stepped on the hard, plastic head of a singing turtle. He half kicked the thing and half slipped, his knee smashing into the bed’s footboard, the cracks in the ceiling suddenly illuminated in pale, blue light shooting from the turtle’s shell. 

“Ow shit shit shitty shit what the fucking hell!” Bhupati was yelling, the baby was crying, and the turtle was warbling. The more we get together, the happier we’ll be.

Maneesha sat up, pulling the small body at her side into her chest before she was even fully awake. Some actions are all instinct. She cast an annoyed glance at the clock, then at Bhupati, then swung her legs over the side of the bed and was gone, the stairs creaking with the combined weight of the two-headed creature’s descent. 

“Look outside!” Bhupati called after her. “Look at Lakshmi-Ma!”

But by then, the only evidence of lightning was an agitated dog and eight blackened stumps. 

***

Bhupati went back to Little India and returned with eight Lakshmis – some bigger, some smaller, some sitting, some standing; all draped in red, twenty-four arms outstretched, promising prosperity in exchange for a little bit of faith. He left Lakshmi #1 and Lakshmi #2 in the pool – one blind, both indifferent to the dead mouse floating by, the corn cob covered in ash. 

Maneesha watched from the kitchen, tight-lipped. She could have married anyone and gone anywhere – America, New Zealand, Peru – but Bhupati had painted Canada with such a magical palette. In his emails, he had sent pictures of forest trails in colours she had never seen on trees, children laughing in fluffy, sparkling snow, giant houses with swimming pools just like hotels. That was the life she had purchased with her plane ticket and her virginity. That was what she was owed. 

Bhupati pretended not to notice her glaring. Like the original Lakshmis, he too could be blind. He too could be indifferent. He placed the goddesses all over the yard, in shallow holes surrounded by dirt and stones, so that when the Haitian grandmother looked down from a drafty bedroom, it appeared that her pinched-faced Paki neighbour had planted so many strange flowers. 

Idiot, the old woman thought. Nothing can take root in the mud. 

***

The third time lighting struck Bhupati’s shrine(s) to Goddess Lakshmi, it set them all on fire. He had tended to them throughout the summer, rotating an aluminum lawn chair between them to eat his lunch out of styrofoam containers while the baby went to daycare and Maneesha went to work. Even when it started to get colder and the house was inexplicably empty for days at a time, he had continued to visit them in turn, lighting Maneesha’s aromatherapy candles when the sun went down, so each Goddess could bask in her own radius of Apple Pie, Linen & Lavender, Ocean Breeze. In the winter, he had dutifully put on his secondhand boots and oversized coat and shoveled a path from one Lakshmi to the next, brushing any freshly fallen snow from where it collected on their shoulders, in their laps. They asked for nothing more. 

It wasn’t raining when the lightning struck, which might have been why it caught him by surprise. He had been watching for warnings, waiting all year for storms. Bhupati was standing where the kitchen table used to be, reading Maneesha’s letter. Her friends who were married to cardiologists and radiologists and all the other ists that Bhupati couldn’t remember, told her again and again that Parkdale was a bad neighbourhood. The listings she printed at the library were for condos in places called Richmond-Hill and Thorn-Hill, sometimes King-City.

“So they are living in King-City and we are living in King-Street. Who can tell the difference, am I right?” Bhupati always chuckled at his own quips, but they left Maneesha’s fists and jaw clenching, burning with unspent rage. Stupidity made her furious.

The April sky that morning was the colour of a dirty spoon, distant thunder rolling along its edges. If Bhupati had looked up from the letter, he would have seen the fast-moving flashes between the clouds, may have had just enough time to bring the Lakshmis inside and save them from immolation. As it was, his head only snapped up when the lightning was right on top of them and it was too late to do anything but gape, cartoonish, as it split into ten white tongues, kissing each Lakshmi with fire. They went up in flames as if doused with kerosene, neither awake nor asleep. They burned on instinct. 

Bhupati wandered outside in his bare feet and surveyed his garden of dying goddesses. He had looked up the odds of being struck by lightning twice and found they were one in nine million. Once was a curiosity, twice an unlikely coincidence, three times, a curse. What to do? 

Cremate them. Mark their graves. 

He sat in the lawn chair and let them burn to the ground. Maneesha had taken all the tupperware, but he dug through the trash and found ten styrofoam urns from which he shook out the cockroaches and rinsed the grease. When all that was left of his would-be shrines was misshapen remnants mixed with smouldering ash, he carefully scooped the piles into their spongy coffins and buried them in a neat row along the fence, marking each mound with a rock. Bhupati knew he ought to release them somewhere nice, under a tree, into the lake; but in this country, people trapped their dead in boxes under the ground and this country was where he had taken root. Now the Lakshmis were burned and buried. The best of both worlds, in the end. 

***

Bhupati took the subway to the end of the line, then boarded a bus that crossed into the Hills. He had imagined a different landscape entirely – flowering meadows, castles, kites aloft in cloudless skies – but the Hill where he got off the bus and walked to the return address on Maneesha’s letter, turned out to be nothing more than an unremarkable suburb, just a little ways north of the city. 

He stopped in front of a pink townhouse and stared into an upstairs window where movement caught his eye. A woman in a red t-shirt bounced a small child on her hip, swaying, maybe singing. She turned so that the child’s head was obscured and all Bhupati could see was their four arms; two long, two short, all moving as one. A man entered, bent down out of Bhupati’s view, and then stroked the woman’s hair against a backdrop of blue light. The more we get together, the happier we’ll be. 

***

Maneesha glanced out the window at a blurry figure on the sidewalk. Whether blind or indifferent, she pulled the curtains shut. She never prayed for lightning again. 

Youth 2019: Winner

Page’s by Jessica Wang

The bookstore was the kind of building that a careless passerby would not notice unless they were looking for it. The fact that the store shared the side street with a few flashier, bolder attractions did not help its cause. There to the right of it was a brightly lit cosmetic store that boasted its newest products in the front window. The pretty little store manager spent an afternoon of every week redecorating the display. To the left of the bookstore was a intage movie theatre that welcomed daily patrons of all ages and intentions; elderly couples hobbling hand in hand, seeking a dose of cinematic nostalgia; excited parents dragging their reluctant children along; curious teenagers forced to explore the town’s history through this assignment or that. The theatres showed oldies from Monday to Wednesday and on the weekends, and 3 feature films every Friday. Thursday was their day off, and the north end of Hazel Street was considerably quieter on that day. 

The bookstore survived on wandering souls seeking to kill time in between meetings or dates, tourists who had more careful eyes than the town’s residents, and the occasional true book lover. Although few people in the town knew it, the bookstore has been there longer than both the movie theatre and the cosmetic store. It had lilac walls and dark mahogany shelves filled to the brim with books of every shade and tone. The store was drenched deep in the scent of fresh lavender and musty ink, and the carpeted floor muffled every footstep to the point that it seemed like the ancient whispers of poetry and prose called out from the pages as one walked by. The shop had been around since Elliot Page moved from Toronto to Kingston in the autumn of 1997. He was quiet man with light hair and soft eyes and a slightly melancholic air. “Page’s”, he had called the store then, laughing to himself at the perfect coincidence that was his surname and his new profession. The store was open every day of the year, and had been for the entire twenty years of its existence. 

Elliot lived a short block away in a modest townhouse, and he walked to the store early every morning to open it up. He spent the days sitting behind the red oak counter near the main entrance, greeting customers and categorizing books.  

Sometimes, he would write on loose sheets of paper while glancing out the front window. It was an old habit of his; he liked to compose descriptions about the people who walked by. He was doing precisely this on a cloudless Thursday afternoon when the bell of the shop gave its familiar sharp tinkle. Looking up, he saw a girl with swaying dark hair walk by. Her narrow shoulders slumped under the weight of the backpack she carried. He gave her a polite nod, which she returned with a bright smile. In his experience from his careful observations of people, Elliot guessed the girl to be about 16 or 17 years, and predicted that she was likely there to conduct research for some school project. Most young people bypassed the bookstore on their way to the movie theatre.  Satisfied with his analysis, he returned to his people watching. 

A man, tall and stern, dark blue suit with silver cufflinks, about 40 years. 

A young woman, long blonde hair, large sunglasses, seems utterly confident of her appearance. 

Two boys in grey school uniforms, being drooled over by two giggling girls in identical uniforms. 

When he grew tired of the descriptions, he set down his pen and picked up one of the books from his desk. It was an old favorite, and he lost himself in it for the next few hours. He was shaken out of his reverie by soft footsteps. Outside the window, the sunny day had given way to darkness. 

“Hi, I’m Viviane.” 

It was the girl with the dark hair. Elliot was surprised to see that she was still there.

“Elliot Page,” he replied curtly. 

“I was just wondering what days the store was open? There’s no sign anywhere,” the girl trailed off, looking around uncertainly. 

“Everyday.”

The girl seemed satisfied with this response and left, giving Elliot a little wave on the way out.

The next day, Viviane returned in the afternoon, and stayed until it was dark. She came again on the day after, and the day after that, until her daily afternoon visits became a regular occasion. After a while, she started to talk to Elliot during her reading time. She told him about her grand ambitions and careful schemes, and he liked listening to her speak so animatedly, and with such vibrant hopes about her life to come. She reminded him of himself, when he was younger and filled with the thirst of one who was still becoming. 

“I want to be a writer someday. I want to write a book that becomes the book that makes someone else want to be a writer,” she told him. 

“Have you read any books like that?” he had asked.

“A few. They’re hard to come by.”

“As are most special things,” he answered. 

“You could say that,” she agreed thoughtfully, then returned to her reading. 

“Are you going to try to read every book in the store?” he inquired on a particularly windy Wednesday afternoon.

Viviane shrugged. “I like it here. It’s too loud at home. Besides, you’re always adding new books, so I’ll never read all of them.”

“I guess so.”

“My parents are always telling me that writing is waste of my time, and that I’ll never get anywhere with it anyway.”

“I take it you don’t agree with them?”

“Obviously not. Besides, I like the walls here. Lilac is my favorite color. I’m assuming it’s also yours?” she asked curiously. 

“Something like that,” Elliot replied gruffly, and said nothing more. 

When autumn came around, Viviane stopped coming on the weekdays. She walked by the store on the way home from school, and waved at Elliot through the front window. On the weekends, she returned to her usual routine of afternoon visits. She had taken to exploring the back corners of the store, and disappeared among the shelves for hours at a time. One Sunday in early winter, when the store was beginning to empty, Elliot went to look for Viviane to inform her that he was closing soon. To his surprise, he found her sitting at one of the armchairs, calmly copying down the contents of a small, gold-trimmed book into a leather-bound notepad. 

“What are you doing?” 

Viviane looked up. “I really like this book.”

Elliot reached forward and grabbed the book. The cover of the small volume read “The Language of All Flowers, a comprehensive dictionary”. His hand shook slightly. 

“There’s a whole big section on types of flowers back here,” Viviane continued. “Are you a secret florist at heart?”

Elliot shook his head slowly. “I think you should head home before it gets too dark,” he replied softly. 

She picked up her book bag and walked slowly out of the store. Elliot opened the book and thumbed carefully through the thin pages. Then, he sat in the armchair in the semidarkness, shrouded in memories.

On Viviane’s next few visits to the store, Elliot did no make any attempts to talk with her. Instead, he sat at his desk and wrote on his papers. At times, she would look up and catch his eye, but he always looked away abruptly. 

“I’m sorry for copying the book. Do you want me to buy it instead?” she asked after weeks of this silence.

“No, it’s fine,” he replied, not looking up from the book he was reading. 

“I just felt like it was something I wanted to have in my own writing.”

“That’s good,” Elliot said, turning a page. 

She glanced around the store, then down at his desk. 

“What’s this?” she asked, gesturing at a small pile of papers covered with his swirling print. 

“A way to kill time.”

She picked up the paper and read his thoughtful descriptions about the people that passed by the store window. In spring, he wrote about how they carried bright umbrellas and wore cheerful grins despite the incessant rains. In the summer, he said that they were exuberant and impatient. In the autumn, he described the falling leaves as a colorful storm. On the bottom of that page, there was a footnote, that read: “dead leaves meaning sadness, mourning”

“I like that flowers and plants have meanings,” she remarked. 

“So do I.”

“Is that why that flower dictionary book is so important to you?” 

“Not the book itself,” Elliot answered. 

“Who gave you the book?”

“Bought it myself. First book I ever got with my own money. I had to save up for it.”

“How old were you?” 

“Eleven or twelve,” he closed his book and leaned back in his chair. 

“That’s a strange reading choice for that age. When I was eleven, I was really into those detective book series,” Viviane laughed. 

Elliot shrugged. 

“So why did you choose it?”

He sighed. “I don’t want to take away from your reading time. There are some new books in the middle shelf, if you want to check it out.”

“I don’t feel like reading today. Tell me a good story,” she begged. 

The old man sighed. He looked out the window and was silent for a long time, and then he began. 

“A long time ago, a mother told her son wonderful bedtime stories. She told him about pretty places and distant rumors, and when he was old enough, she taught him how to read. Every Friday, she would take him downtown and they would visit the bookstore. They would each pick out a book and read until their eyes grew sore and their backs felt stiff. And then, they would walk home in the dark. The boy could always count on Fridays, because no matter what, come rain or shine, sleet or hail, there was his mother, and the books, and so he was happy. 

Sometimes, she would write him stories to read. Her handwriting was very plain and blocky, but the way she could use words to make something meaningful always made up for that. She could only write good stories using purple ink, because she said that purple helped her think. 

Then, one day, his mother left early one morning in the midsummer haze, with a blue headscarf in one hand and a faded orange suitcase in the other. All that the boy had to remember her by was a pink azalea that he found later that day on his bedroom windowsill. The boy knew that all flowers had meanings, and pink azaleas meant ‘take care of yourself for me’, and so he did. He didn’t crumple in despair or become vengeful and furious. In his mind, the message of the flower was a hopeful one. He thought that it meant that the giver of the message had the intention of coming back for him, and that he should live happily until then. 

The boy continued to go the book store every Friday, hoping that by some miracle of time and space, his mother would be there, waiting for him like she always did. But she was never there. He looked for her in every person he walked by, but nobody was ever her. They were all just strangers. So the boy grew up and left for school, and then one day, when he went back to the bookstore, he found that it was gone, too.”

Viviane was listening with serious eyes. “Then what happened?”

Elliot paused. “He left his home city, and moved to a small town, and he stopped waiting for her. He let her go and lived a good life.”

The girl smiled at this. She then walked towards the closest shelf and picked out a book to read. As usual, she was the last customer to leave that night. Before she went out the door, she paused in front of Elliot’s counter. 

“The thing I like best about telling stories,” she said quietly, “is that you can fix things that can’t be fixed. You can make things that never happened seem as true as you and I.”

The bell tinkled shrilly as the girl walked out into the fluttering snow. Elliot waited a long time after she was gone, then slowly opened his side drawer and retrieved a small wooden box. He opened it, and was surprised to find that his hands were very steady as he pulled out the single object the box contained. 

A faded pink azalea, withered with age. 

Youth 2019: 2nd runner up

 The Pink Umbrella by Shirley Ren

His bad leg was hurting again. 

He cursed as he reached for the cane. 

It wasn’t the pain that he minded. After all, it never truly left him in the past forty-five years ever since the bullet struck him on the battlefield. It always lingered like white noise in the background, in his sleep, in his movements, in his thoughts. What he despised was the alert sent by the growing soreness in his right knee – a rain was approaching. 

He peeked out of the window in search of evidence. The late-June sun was unnaturally bright, casting a yellow-tinted veil over the misty blue sky. It would’ve seemed like a perfect day for a picnic to anyone else, but the few mischievous shades of grey hanging around mindlessly in the distance did not escape the old veteran’s eyes. 

He sighed as he took out a wrinkled handkerchief and wiped away the sticky sweat clinging on his forehead, suddenly aware of the humidity. Any other day, he couldn’t have cared less about the rain, but it wasn’t any other day. 

It was Monday. 

And Mondays and Thursdays meant that he could visit her. 

It hit him that it’s already been three days since his last visit – three long days, each longer than a year. He had so much to tell her: how he caught a cockroach on Friday, called the kids on Saturday, and almost set the stove on fire The Pink Umbrella 

yesterday while making soup for dinner. He chuckled at that last thought and blushed – she’d tease him for sure. 

As if to hide his embarrassment, he busied himself by checking the pathetically few possessions in his pocket one last time: a wallet overfilled with loose coins, a tiny bottle of emergency pills, a set of rusted keys, an ancient pocket watch that was always five minutes behind, and a single flower freshly picked this morning from the small pot sitting on the window sill – quite distinguishable among his antique collections. 

Jasmine, her favourite flower, the representation of purity, virtue, and innocence. Just like her. 

A corner of their “window-sill garden” now occupied by wild grasses was once filled with joyful flowers of all sorts, but it has been left untouched since she left the house. He attributed his laziness to his old bones, but a tinge of guilt made him keep one small flower pot for the jasmines – a sign of liveliness in the otherwise dim-lit and dull small apartment. 

He placed the jasmine back in his pocket with all the grace and tenderness that his withered hands had and started walking towards the door. The ache from his right knee reminded him of the rain again. 

“Right, an umbrella,” he murmured. 

He reached for the pink umbrella standing peacefully by the entryway and brushed off a thin layer of dust from its The Pink Umbrella 

fabric. It’s been there for a while now, it wasn’t as if he left the house often on a rainy day – with an aching leg. 

But again, it wasn’t any other day. 

It was Monday. 

And Mondays and Thursdays meant that he could visit her. 

He paused for a moment, letting his memory float back to the day they bought the umbrella. The day she bought the umbrella. 

It was the third time he had accompanied her to the hospital, the first two being their kids’ births. Strangely, in their nearly fifty years of marriage, it was always him who was sick, and her who accompanied him. People said he was tough, surviving through battle after battle, disease after disease, surgery after surgery. But they said that she was tougher, for she hardly ever got sick, not even a cold. 

For weeks, he had been noticing an unhealthy yellow settling over her normally rosy cheeks. He insisted that she go see a doctor, but she brushed it off lightly, blaming it on the unforgiving heat of the August sun. A few days later, he found her clutching her right side when she moved, as if there was a sore spot. 

Then, on a miserably cloudy day in early September, she jolted awake in her sleep. Judging by the paleness of her face and the beads of sweat on her forehead, he knew that something wasn’t right. The Pink Umbrella 

He was familiar with the sterile lights, the chemical-filled air, the blanch walls, and the humming of machines in the hospital corridors. But being there for her, somehow made him uneasy. He suddenly understood her anxiety as the one waiting, knowing that the other is merely separated by a slab of concrete steel. 

It was nearly noon when the metal barriers opened, and he was relieved to see her emerge from the other side with a weary smile on her face. 

“They said it might be gallstones,” she shrugged, and he was puzzled by how she could say it in such a light tone, for he had experienced the same unpleasant illness five years ago. 

Nonetheless, he let out a long breath that he had been holding for the past hour. At least it wasn’t anything more serious, and with her strong physique, she ought to recover in less than two weeks after the surgery. 

The nervous tension between them started to ease as they left the hospital for lunch, until – 

“Thwack!” A cloud exploded over them, followed immediately by vicious raindrops. Cursing, she helped him to get under the roof of a small boutique, and to their amazement, a boutique selling umbrellas. 

“Wait here,” she said. 

A few minutes later, she appeared with a bright pink umbrella in her hand. “There weren’t many styles to choose from, plus I didn’t want plain black or grey,” she explained. The Pink Umbrella 

He didn’t argue. 

A lovely pink flower bloomed in front of them, casting a tint of rose over her face. She smiled, and in that split of a second, he thought that he saw the same bright and young girl he met fifty years ago who radiated sunshine wherever she went. Or, perhaps she was still that girl, he thought to himself. 

Would she have smiled if she’d foreseen what awaited them that afternoon when they returned to the hospital? He had no way of knowing. But he was glad to have seen her smile with such wholeheartedness, like a gentle breeze caressing the earliest sprouts in spring. 

For he never saw the same smile again. 

He fished the keys from his pocket and as he was about to lock the door, a cheerful voice startled him – 

“Mornin’, sir.” 

He turned around to find the boy in his twenties who moved next door three months ago. Hazelnut eyes, golden hair, wheatish skin… He so wished he was still young. He nodded politely – he still hasn’t bothered to ask that kid for his name – and suddenly noticed someone else behind him, someone he’s never seen before. 

A fair girl with lovely brown eyes and long blond hair peeked curiously from behind the boy. He noticed that they The Pink Umbrella 

were holding hands. Her cheeks reddened when his eyes met hers. 

He beamed at the boy, “Good job, son.” Then turned around to fumble with the lock. 

The boy scratched the back of his neck with a shy grin on his face, “Great weather today, we just went out for a walk.” Then he added as if purposely changing the subject, “Sir, you really won’t need an umbrella”. 

Click. The key finally found its place into the lock hole. 

“Well, ya gotta be prepared, son, ya never know with the weather,” he shrugged. 

“Alright sir, enjoy your walk.” The couple disappeared behind the door next to his. 

“Lovers,” he sighed under his breath, “must feel good to be young.” 

The first time he saw her was at a friend’s house. 

She was wearing a silky pastel-blue dress, and a white jasmine flower that shined in her long black hair. And her eyes, oh her eyes, they were velvety brown with dancing swirls of green. They had the warmth of a cup of tea freshly brewed in the fireplace on a snowy winter day, and the glassiness of a rippling lake under a midsummer night’s sky. 

He could not help but gape at her until his friend elbowed him. Embarrassed, he felt his face turn hot and his The Pink Umbrella 

head turn fuzzy. Without taking his eyes off her, he whispered, “Who is that?” 

“A distant cousin.” 

A distant cousin, he repeated silently in his head, suddenly relieved for some strange reason. 

The trip downstairs was never easy. He had to clutch onto the rails with his right hand and grip his cane and umbrella in the other. Every movement felt like pushing a rusty door, the kind that always makes a kreen- sound when someone tries to wriggle it open. 

He had to stop every couple of steps to gather his breath, thinking how nice it would’ve been if he could grab onto something, or rather, someone

She would always hold his left arm whenever they came across stairs, carrying his cane in her other hand and patiently waiting for him to take the next step. 

“Slow and steady,” she would say, like a mother to a child that was just learning to walk. 

Even as wrinkles climbed up the corners of her smiling eyes and specks of silver fell onto her glossy black hair, she never seemed to have become frail. 

She was always there to lead him, to guide him, to support him. The Pink Umbrella 

“Phew,” he sighed with relief as he finally reached the bottom of the staircase. “Kudos to ya, old thing,” he muttered to himself and chortled. 

His kids suggested that he move to a newer apartment with elevators. But he stubbornly insisted on staying. “Ya get attached to things, to people,” he always said, “moving is too much work for yer old man.” 

He stepped out of the apartment and gazed up, the sun was still shiny underneath a film of murky clouds, and the air was stiff. In the distance, a cicada let out a complaining screech. 

He slowly made his way down the street, stopping by the bakery around the corner. 

“A slice of honey cake?” The baker, a plump woman in her fifties, asked before he could even open his mouth. She has been running the bakery for well over ten years, and she made delicious honey cakes – the kind that makes one’s mouth water even from two blocks away. 

“Yes please.” Then he added with a sense of solemnity, “Ya know, her favourite.” 

She nodded as if she’d expected those exact words from him, then put an extra fat slice of cake in a box. “Going to the hospital again?” She asked mindlessly. 

“Well, it’s Monday,” he replied as he laid some loose coins on the counter. “They still only let me in two days a week, somebody’s gotta complain…” He trailed off as he started The Pink Umbrella 

to walk away, a pink umbrella and a bag with the cake in his hand. 

He imagined her girly giggle when she sees that he has brought her favourite dessert, and he grinned proudly to himself. Suddenly, he felt a warm breeze and looked up. The sun, now a dazzling white circle, was half hidden behind a dense layer of gloomy clouds. 

He panted for breath as he arrived at the bus stop, the pain in his right knee starting to become numb. He took out his handkerchief and blew loudly into it. 

The bus came to a halt in front of him. 

“Good day, sir.” The driver smiled as he lumbered onto the bus, grabbing onto the railing to maintain balance. 

“Good day,” he uttered. 

It was a good day indeed, in spite of the trivial weather. 

Because it was Monday. 

And Mondays and Thursdays meant that he could visit her. 

After settling down in a seat, he peeked out of the window. Dark clouds now piled on top of each other in the sky, and the vicious summer wind sent leaves and dust twirling everywhere. 

“Told ya the weather plays tricks on us,” he murmured as he turned to stroke the pink fabric of the umbrella like it was some treasure. The Pink Umbrella 

The bus steered past the park, turned right onto the bridge, then swished through the narrow streets of town centre. A route he was so familiar with that he could find even in his sleep. 

He reached into his pocket, the jasmine was still there, now with more creases and less vibrancy. To his side, the honey cake gave off a tantalizing aroma that made the little boy behind him eye the bag with envy. He recited silently in his head the things he was going to tell her: the cockroach, the phone call, the stove almost on fire… 

Out of the handful of things that could possibly fluster the worn soul, seeing her was always one of them. 

Back in the bakery, the baker sighed as she watched the old man wobble away. 

“What’s wrong ma’am?” Her apprentice walked in from the back kitchen, carrying another batch of freshly baked treats. 

“You see that old man?” She wiped her hands on her apron and pointed to the figure disappearing into the horizon. 

The apprentice nodded – he’s seen that man quite a few times now, always asking for a slice of honey cake. 

“Poor guy, his wife passed away four years ago but he ain’t believing it. He’s gone mad, still goes to the hospital ‘to visit her’…” She shook her head in pity. The Pink Umbrella 

“Every Monday and Thursday?” The apprentice asked as he laid the tray down. 

“Every Monday and Thursday.” 

The bus came to a steady stop three blocks away from the tall white building – the building that he loathed with all his heart yet visited in his dream, day and night. With his cane, the umbrella, and the cake in one hand, he carefully stepped out, pausing for a second before tottering down the sidewalk. 

Tick. He felt a drop of rain fall onto his head and looked up. The sun was nowhere to be found under a woollen blanket of dappled grey. Around him, warm droplets pitter-pattered onto trees, rooftops, and roads. He fumbled to open his umbrella almost with eagerness. As the pink flower blossomed above him, casting a tint of rose onto the world, he grinned. 

Of all the passersby hurrying to find shelter in the sudden torrential rain, no one noticed the staggering old man holding a pink umbrella.