Out of Salmon

Daniel pulls the handle and drags open the heavy glass door. After treading neglected cobblestones under the Caribbean sun for almost two hours, he rather enjoys the refreshing cold blast he gets as he enters the café.
It smells of coffee and puffy croissants. He has been visiting this café, the best he has found in the old town, almost every morning for the last week.
Two groups of locals wait in line. The first group begins to place their order, discussing options among themselves, occasionally pointing at the menu in the wall. The woman behind the counter looks past them at Daniel. “¡Hola!” she says, smiling at him.
Daniel forces a smile. “Hola.”
Somewhat surprised, the three people at the front of the line stop talking and turn backwards briefly to eye Daniel. One of them frowns slightly.
The cashier turns her smile to them and continues taking their order. With many hours to kill and nothing better to do, Daniel waits patiently at the back of the line.
When he gets his turn he asks for the usual: a cortadito and a sandwich.
“I'm sorry,” says the girl, and her thick lips curve into a sad smile. “We are out of salmon today.”
Daniel shrugs lightly. “Oh.”
“Mark,” calls the woman, turning. Today she's wearing her black curly hair in a bun. “¿Todavía hay salmón?”
“No,” says a man grinding coffee by an old espresso machine at her right, shaking his head. “Se acabó.”
She turns back to Daniel. “Sorry, we ran out,” she repeats.
Daniel considers the menu behind her.
“You can try the tuna salad, if you want,” she offers.
“Hmm... okay. Yeah, let's do that,” he says and he nods, pleased. “In a wrap.”
“In a wrap,” she says, clicking numbers in a modern touch screen in a shinny white case bolted into the wooden counter. “What's your name?” she asks.
“Dan,” he replies, like every other day.
“Dan.” She writes it down in the screen.
He gives her a bill and she gives him change. The coins make a clinking noise against the glass bottom of the tips jar.
“Gracias,” he says, looking into her eyes.
“Gracias a tí,” she replies, looking down.
He turns to survey the café. It is somewhat full today, but a few tables are still free. He sits down on a metal chair that was given a coat of bright red paint some years ago. As he drags his weight to the table, one of the chair's legs screeches loudly as it cuts against the old black and white tiles.
Daniel fishes a book out of his satchel and tries to read. Instead, he ends up overhearing the American couple next to him, who have been looking at a map and discussing their plans for the day. The husband opines confidently that what the old town could really use is more trees and fewer cars. The wife loves the fact that they have cats in every street and these cats seem to be doing pretty well too, I wonder who feeds them, cause they're actually relatively healthy, if you think about it, although it does make it very obvious that all house cats back in America are really very obese, wouldn’t you say?
Every minute, or so, Mark, the guy operating the espresso machine, calls out people's names. As they approach, Mark instinctively wipes his hands on his apron and, with a smile, hands them out cups, wraps, croissants, and sandwiches (but none with salmon; they ran out).
“Excuse me, Dan,” calls out the cashier across the room.
The red chair wobbles lightly as he looks up and smiles. “Yeah?”
“Will you want your coffee with your food?”
“Hmm, sure,” he says.
“Or before?” she asks.
“Oh, I see,” he says. “Yeah, whenever it's ready. It doesn't matter.”
She nods and he goes back to his book.
Classic salsa starts playing from some speakers, filling up the room, drowning the shrill screams of a toddler in a stroller by the door to the patio. The American couple gather their belongings and make their way out to the sunny streets.
A small plate lands gently on Dan's table, next to his glasses; he looks up and sees that the woman has brought him his coffee. It has a heart drawn in the foam.
“Que aproveche,” she says and smiles.
“Thank you!”
“Hoy estás solito, eh, Dan?” She starts picking up plates from the other table.
He nods sadly, somewhat taken aback and trying to hide a frown. “La niña... she had to leave.” He doesn't know what else to say so he clears his throat.
The cashier nods. “I see.” She smiles sadly, with understanding and compassion. “Such is life, eh?” She shrugs.
Dan lets out a sigh and tries to recompose himself. The woman is too young to really understand it. “Ya le llegó la hora de irse,” he hears himself repeat.
“I'm sorry, Dan,” she says, emphasizing his name. “Would you like a glass of water?”

The Fountain

Close to the main square in the little Swiss town where I live there's a small drinking fountain. I walk by it on the way to the train every day; I walk by it on the way back home. It stands there in a corner like an afterthought​, a small stream of water always flowing through it.
Maria says I'm like a dog, says I can't go by a water fountain and not drink, says I'm always thirsty. I guess I like the refreshing feeling on a hot summer day. I do it mostly just to clear my mouth, clear my mind. I think I'm more like a fish.
Maria told me that she once explained to someone that they don't have seasons in Colombia: the weather is always the same, the sun always sets shortly after six. “How boring,” said this person, who had grown up in New England, enjoying the drastic changes, looking forward to Summer in Winter and vice versa.
Maria was upset. She said not having seasons was perfectly fine, nothing boring about it. You can do whatever you want, whenever you want. Besides, you get tropical fruits all year round, and why wouldn't you like that?
Come winter, they shut off the water in the fountain in the little town where I live: for four, five, months the faucet stays dead, like the leafless trees around it.
Well, this morning, trotting over cobblestones, rushing to my train, I saw it spouting water again! Another year has passed.

Hotel Review

Check in was easy; the smooth guy at the lobby, Brian, friendly. The location, just a few blocks from Central Park, is great.
The sound isolation between rooms is a joke, let me tell you. You can practically hear a pin dropped a few rooms across. When someone flips a coin, you can tell it's a quarter and landed heads; pay attention and you can probably tell how many times it turned in the air. Woosh, woosh, woosh, woosh, woosh. The woman from Room 718 just lost the bet so she’ll come with her husband and meet his friends for the game after all, even though she doesn’t really care for them, they're kinda lame, suburban, the only one she kinda likes is Cindy, Mark’s wife, she's really clever and funny, but you said she's not coming, so what's the point, I don't see why you like them so much. We can hear the husband roll his eyes and suppress a sigh. That's how bad the isolation is.
The nine-years-old boy from 712 keeps joyfully whistling parts of Vivaldi’s Summer; he saw a film where they played it and now it's stuck in his head. Somebody, different room, fires back, whistling the military tune from the theme of The Bridge on the River Kwai for a minute or so. The boy, 712, gets the memo and, for a while, all is silent, we only hear the heat pumps, and a small van down in the street that honks thrice at a cab. Then a Japanese guy in 702 bites into an apple and the woman from 718 lets out a loud fart and starts dropping some bombs. Splash! She had Italian for lunch, penne all’arrabiata, and two thirds of the tiramisu, by the sounds of it.
In the city that doesn't sleep we get 705 on the phone until the wee hours of the morning. He won’t register any interest in the loud complaints from the mattress in 702 that stop when 704 knocks on the wall seven times. We can all hear the resignation from the sweaty couple in 702 as they decide to call it a night.
705 doesn't care: he keeps yelling into his mobile phone, clutching it tightly. I can hear even the Indian accent of the guy at the other end of the line, probably short and a bit chubby, wearing a plaid shirt and corduroy pants, an architect, if I had to guess.
The architect is an old friend of 705 and the proud father of two boys, ages seven and ten, who like to play ball. He takes them often to the dog park in Union Square; the boys dream of having a dog of their own, but, for now, watching through the fence in the park other people's dogs smelling each other's butts and chasing sticks and balls will have to do. 705 and his wife have two large dogs of their own, a luxury in this place, but the architect hasn't thought of introducing them to his kids.
Hang on, here comes the lift again. It spat out four very drunk people. One of them is very pissed off but there's no telling why; the other three sound quite happy, the way they walk. They split into rooms 715 and 717 and go to bed without brushing their teeth.
Where was I? Oh, yeah: we've learned, from his conversation with the Indian guy, that 705's marriage is crumbling; his wife just came back from her business trip through Europe, where she had an affair with her boss. Barcelona! Paris! Florence! The sights! It must be tough to keep it together. I want to go give 705 a hug.
I also want to go set his two dogs on fire. Hush up! Sleep deprivation is no laughing matter.
The room is clean, as far as the eye and nose can tell. Also spacious, the ceiling very high, like a concert hall. I just started playing The Four Seasons. Ha. The windows are big and take in the sun that reflects from the building across 58th street. Has running water? The bedding is good, though the mattress a bit hard. Ask 702. Did I mention the noise problem?
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The Thrift Shop

“Una pausa?” Jane, face up on the grass, looks at the sky.
Daniel clicks his glasses and looks at her. “Sure.”
“I really like it,” she says. “Is Berenice a prostitute?”
He smiles. “Not saying!”
“What was his name?”
“Caicedo.” He hands her the old book.
She examines the cover, which has a drawing of a young woman, large breasts, taking off or putting on, you couldn’t tell which, a shirt.
Save for a few families, the park is empty, a refuge from the big city chaos. It’s Thursday afternoon; everybody’s working.
Daniel hasn’t read Caicedo in many years; the prose makes him feel alive. “I find it very refreshing.”
“How so?”
“He uses a lot of Colombian slang,” he explains, his back against a cherry tree.
Jane nods. She had to keep asking him about many words.
He turns and looks at her.
“The story is really intense!” she says. “I wonder where it’s going...”
The grass is loaded with yellowing cherry flowers, relics of the bygone season, clinging to their fading pink. Daniel picks one up and throws it at Jane, who closes her eyes instinctively.
“I like your shirt.”
“Oh?” She peeks at him. “Thank you! It was my grandmother’s! She left me a million things.”
“Really? It looks great on you.”
He wants to hold her hand, lick her lips. This is why they came to the park! Working up some courage he reaches out and grabs a little twig that was nestled in her red curls. Defeated, he throws it away.
“All I have from my grandmother are two small British mugs, shaped like faces.” He sighs. “I looked them up; they stopped making them fifty-five years ago. One is a character from Dickens. They were in Colombia for decades; now back in Europe. One of them broke; they glued it together. In a strange way I think it makes it special.”
“Who glued it together?”
“No idea. It was like that when I got it,” he says. “I wish I had more things from her.”
Two young kids and a chubby man half a block away kick a ball back and forth. The youngest kid kicks poorly, forcing the older to chase the ball all the time.
“Hey, what’s the saddest moment in your life?”
She opens her mouth to speak but no sound comes out. Her lips close again. She thinks, briefly. “Boy, what a question!”
Daniel shrugs and laughs. “You’re right, it’s a stupid question!” Did he think this would bring them closer?
“I can tell you if you want to know,” she says. “Just... I don’t know if we should go there.”
Daniel nods. “No, of course. I’m sorry.”
Jane sits up and they observe the kids and their father, who are now sitting over a blanket, eating cake.
“Well, how about I tell you about my saddest moment?” asks Daniel.
She looks at him.
“Or, one of them, anyway,” he says to himself, to calm his mind, where several other ideas—infernal ideas borne of the bloody madness of Latin American violence—are sprouting and beginning to howl. He’d rather summon a purer kind of sadness.
“I was once in Arkansas, it...”
“Oh, boy, Arkansas?” She laughs. “Sad indeed!”
He laughs. “Arkansas is great if you’re into outdoors: beautiful parks, but... yeah, not my thing.”
Jane nods.
“Anyway, it was Mother’s Day. I was twenty-five. I was there for work. I could have flown back to Bogota but... I didn’t time it well: it was just Mother’s Day, no biggie, right?
“Back then Tita, my grandmother, still lived, though her mind was already beginning to nourish butterflies.” His left hand dances in the air, fingers wiggling randomly.
Their eyes lock for a second until Daniel looks back to the horizon. They both savor those timeless moments, when their eyes join—a little spark, a frail connection—before one looks away.
“She was sick?”
“Yep. It got a lot worse later. Some days she was okay, others she would forget what she was saying.”
“I see.”
“One time, a year before she died, she told us a story. It took a while: she would laugh and laugh between each sentence. ‘An elegant British man, very formal, ran down the 7th avenue. Suddenly, he slipped, falling hard on his back! It took him long to recover. A puddle started forming around him. A worried crowd gathered. Coming to his wits, he sat up and fished a hip-flask out of his vest. Don’t w’rry, it broke not! ‘Tis only blood thou seeth!’ ”
“Silly.” Jane smiles. “Hmm. Why was he British?”
“Couldn’t say.” He laughs. “But he was, as British as the Queen. The way she told it, it’s like she actually saw it happen.” Daniel could picture the man tumbling, under sepia skies of a Bogota of yore, his hat landing besides him on the cobblestones, Tita’s demented yet tender fits of laughter from the future rising in the background. The sound of her laughter was already starting to blur; how long would he be able to remember it for?
A young couple with a big black labrador walks by the father and kids. The boys run to the dog, who wags his tail vigorously. The father urges caution, following them lazily. The dog barks playfully and the youngest kid lets out an excited screech. They talk briefly to the dog owners before they start petting him.
“My saddest moment was ten years ago, a few before she told of the British man. My mother’s family would gather each year and celebrate Mother’s Day at Tita’s. I was stuck in Arkansas.”
Jane nods. He looks at her and then back at the kids.
“So I called them. I talked with a cousin, two aunts, my mother. ‘Happy Mother’s day; best wishes to everybody; yeah, I’m fine in fucking Arkansas.’ It was a bit sad, but okay.
“But when they put Tita on the phone... I just...” He sighs a slow sigh. “I broke down.”
Jane looks at him; she’s surprised by how green his hazel eyes look under the afternoon sun filtering through the trees.
“I found it hard to speak. She said it was a pity I wasn’t there: she had many croissants. You see, they teased me, since I was little, that I always ate all the croissants.” He smiles. “I guess I did.”
“She teased me, playfully, and I just couldn’t say much. I thanked her for all the croissants. She said they’d serve ravioli. I always loved Tita’s ravioli. ‘Were you here, Danny, you could eat all the ravioli you wanted!’ she said. I just couldn’t do it: I had to hang up. I did say goodbye, but it was pretty abrupt. She said she hoped to see me soon. Click, that was it.
“I fell on the carpet, a broken piece of furniture, and spent hours crying. I don’t know why I was so sad. I mean, it is nothing, really; I’d see her one or two weeks later. But I just...” He trails off.
“That’s very sweet,” offers Jane.
“I think that’s the saddest moment in my life.”
“Do you remember your dreams?”
They’re eating breakfast in the patio of a café. The patio is full of puddles but it no longer rains.
Jane is wearing a floral dress. Her hair is a mess. “Not really,” she says. “Only as I’m waking up.”
She smiles suddenly. “Actually... there’s a special place that I often dream of.” She takes a sip of coffee. “It’s so exciting whenever it turns up in my dreams! It’s very realistic, with a life of its own, and very consistent. I never told anyone about it.”
Daniel nods as he drinks orange juice through a straw.
“It’s a huge thrift shop freak house. They sell all sorts of unusual stuff, everything broken in some weird way but still awesome. It’s dirt cheap too. This morning I was there, buying a necklace and a stuffed crow.”
He laughs and reaches for his almond croissant. “Cool!”
“I wake up trying to remember where it is, making plans to visit, wondering, confused, whether it actually exists.” She smiles. “It doesn’t, unfortunately.”
“Bring me there one day!”
“Whose birthday is it tomorrow?”
Daniel smiles, blushing.
“I’ll make you ravioli,” she says, “if you want.”
He takes her hand. “That would be great.”
They start walking to the cinema.
“What I should really do is make you breakfast,” she says. “I really like raspberries. Do you like berries? I like them all. Strawberries, blueberries, cherries, you name it. My favorites are raspberries. Wait, are cherries berries?”
Daniel laughs. “I don’t know.”
“I had such a joyful childhood,” she says. “I really love my parents, both of them. They were great.”
“I’m glad, baby.” He squeezes her hand.
“One time my mom came from the supermarket with big brown bags. This was shortly after we moved to Boston,” she explains. “I was four years old, turning five.
“As she was putting things away, she looked at me and asked me: ‘Do you know what day it is tomorrow?’ I didn’t know. ‘Guess whose birthday it is tomorrow!’ I had no idea. ‘It’s yours!’ she said, excited.” She laughs. “I was so thrilled! It was my birthday!”
Daniel looks at her. It fills him with joy to see how happy she is talking about her childhood.
“In the morning she made this wonderful breakfast. I remember sitting in the table, waiting. She served me all this fruit with my special birthday breakfast. It was awesome! I was ecstatic! I remember thinking that the raspberries were the best part.”
They stop in an intersection. A small crowd starts forming around them, waiting for the light to change.
“We’ll stop in the supermarket,” she says. “I’ll make breakfast tomorrow, you’ll see. You can eat all the croissants.”
“Read me a bit more, would you?”
In a big park, Daniel and Jane sit on a bench under a sycamore tree in a big field. The day is windy but very hot. A trail across the field sees its share of occasional visitors.
An owl is stitched on Jane’s bag. She takes a small book out and reads a story about a guy collecting exotic birds in his attic, an exiled king losing his kingdom.
“Interesting.,” says Daniel pensively as Jane sets the book down. “I like it.”
She leans her head on his shoulder and they remain silent for a minute.
“See that woman?”
Daniel turns slightly. “The mother?”
Jane nods. “She’s so beautiful...”
Sitting over a blanket facing them, not far, a slender woman in a white dress cradles a very young baby—one or two months old. A black stroller is stationed next to her. She rocks the baby ever so gently. The baby sleeps.
“It’s lovely how she takes care of him. She only has eyes for him; he’s her whole world,” she says. “It’s so nice to see, don’t you think?”
“She seems very happy.”
Jane nods, rubbing against Daniel’s shoulder, as they watch in silence.
“You once asked me about my saddest moment,” says Jane eventually. “I’ve thought about it. I’d like to tell you, if you want.”
“Sure.” He takes her hand, anchoring her to the present.
“I’m not sure it’s the saddest moment but I want to tell you about it. It is one of my earliest memories, but I remember it very clearly.”
She thinks briefly.
“When I was six I had to stay at school after class every day; my parents worked late and I was too young to be on my own. I’d sit in the cafeteria with a few kids doing my homework. Most kids were a bit older. I didn’t really know them—I was relatively lonely, living my own private world.
“One day one kid started crying hard. Two adults went to talk to him, tried to console him, but he just kept crying.”
“No idea. I couldn’t hear them, they were a bit far. He wasn’t physically hurt or such, just very visibly distressed. He looked very sad...”
The mother in the park starts humming a tune. The wind, rustling the sycamore leaves, lets only the silhouette of the melody reach Jane and Daniel.
“As I watched him, a shadow crept over my skin. I didn’t know him but I sensed his sadness very intensely, like I could see it in the air, a heavy gloom, flowing out of him, surrounding me, conquering everything. I felt so desolate! I felt like I was inhaling it, drowning in it, somehow taking in the weight of his sadness, of the sadness of the universe. I felt crushed! I didn’t move at first, just felt despair rise gradually inside, but I finally I burst to tears.”
“I’m very sorry.” Daniel caresses her palm.
Jane smiles. “One adult came over and asked me what was wrong. It was difficult to speak, like I had something crammed in my throat. I was so embarrassed! Maybe I didn’t want to admit to staring at stuff that had nothing to do with me?
“Hmm. I think it’s really just that I had no idea why I felt like that. I said I couldn’t say why but I felt very sad. I was shaking! I thought she would scold me, like I needed to justify it. And I couldn’t. She wouldn’t understand; heck, I didn’t understand!
“But she nodded compassionately and said something reassuring, like ‘Yeah, it’s okay. Sometimes people just feel sad for no reason.’ ”
Daniel takes his hand away to wrap his arm around her shoulders. “That’s a very beautiful story, Jay.”
“I think that’s when I first realized how spontaneously sadness can materialize and how tangible it can be.”
The mother sets her baby in the little carriage carefully. After folding and stowing away the blanket, she peers into the stroller, to assure herself that all is good. In silence, Daniel and Jane watch them slowly drift away. The sycamores swallow them.
“I told you the story,” she says, “because I wonder what it says about me. People sometimes assume I’m cold, or overly protective of my emotions, almost selfish.
“But it’s rather that I love everyone, especially strangers, immensely—sometimes more than I love myself. When I feel my own sadness, I often feel just like that day, unable to understand why.”
“Oh, whoah, look at you!” says Jane as Daniel rushes to her, looking at his watch. “Who could recognize you!” She smiles.
“Oh, come on!” He laughs. He spreads his arms. “I am king of time and space!”
She laughs.
He winks and kisses her.
They start walking through a small park, the grass packed with dry leaves the trees have shed.
She laughs, shaking her head. “You know? I almost forgot the tickets! I realized as I was locking the door out of my apartment.”
“Phew.” Daniel smiles. “Hey, you look so handsome!”
Jane is wearing a black dress under a purple shall. “Thank you, baby.” She blushes slightly. “So do you! I love your coat!”
“Thanks!” Daniel has a dark green wool coat. “It was my grandfather’s.”
“Really?” She eyes it more closely.
“Yeah. I don’t know how old it is. It’s English; Scottish wool, I think.”
“Like your grandmother’s mugs?”
“Yeah!” Daniel smiles. “I never thought about it, but yes. Suppose they bought them in the same trip?”
“Well, it’s beautiful.”
“It’s missing a button, though.” He points at a spot where a few threads, deflated whiskers, hang out. “Here.”
“Oh. I wouldn’t have noticed, you can’t tell.”
They pass a water-breathing dragon and, having some time to kill before the opera, enter a café. They take black stools by the bar. The sun is beginning to set.
“Were you close to him?”
“To your grandfather.”
He laughs. “Never met him; cancer took him a year before I was born.”
“And yet I wear his coat proudly. Isn’t it weird? I wonder what it means.”
“Well, it looks great on you.”
He smiles.
“Gentleman, miss.” A waiter bows his head slightly.
“Two espressos, please.”
The waiter nods and glides to the grinder.
“What did he do?”
“My grandfather? Taught law in a university. He was somewhat celebrated, I think; I’m told he was reserved and distant at home yet very dear to his students.”
“I see.”
He points at the missing the button. “I should bring it to a tailor, have it mended,” he says.
“I’ll be happy to fix it for you, Danny. These buttons are very pretty. You have the missing button, yeah?”
“Eh, nope.”
“Oh. I don’t know if we’ll be able to buy it.” She frowns. “Wonder if they still make them.”
“Well, this is my coat now. Suppose we used a completely different button, maybe one from your grandmother’s red coat?”
“Hmm.” She smiles. “Yeah, I’d like that.”

Shadow's Night of Many Tricks

Three young men and one woman waited for their train.
“Damn, it’s cold tonight,” said the shortest man, his hands stuffed in his pockets. He couldn't wait to be alone with the woman.
“It’ll snow tomorrow,” said the woman and smiled.
“We’ll see,” said the tallest man, checking his watch. “I'm hungry; it’s good we got some food.” He turned to the woman. He had been secretly in love with her for the best part of the year. “Would you hand me my piece?”
The church bells started ringing in the distance.
The woman set a big paper bag on the floor by the bench. The bag had the name of a restaurant printed in red and black on the sides. She started taking things out of it and distributing them. “Joe, you’re cheese, right?”
The third man, who was sitting on the bench, coughed loudly. The warmth of his breath rose and disappeared under the moon. “Yeah.”
She gave him the piece with cheese.
He took his black wool gloves off and reached out. “Thanks!”
They all started eating and waited in silence.
The yellow light of the train appeared in the horizon, cutting through skeletons of birch trees. The blades reverberated as it approached. When the train came to a full stop, they climbed in. Once its doors had closed with a puff, the beast of steel resumed its journey, rocking to the gentle rhythm of the rails.
“Fuck, I left the bag,” said the woman and, grabbing the nearest pole, turned and tried to look out through the frosted glass. The bench and the bag besides it were already too far behind to see.
In a sunny day in spring Shadow ran by the creek, chasing Bobby, Cindy, and Charlie clumsily; butterflies flew away as the kitties ran among daisies and lilies.
Mother called out to them. The kitties meowed and rushed to her. She was hunting a pair of mice.
The mice and Mother were the first ones to disappear. The bright day got a little darker; a rattling sound grew louder and louder, replacing the voices of the birds in the trees. Bobby disappeared, and then Charlie, and Cindy, leaving Shadow alone. The noise of the train finally woke Shadow up; the sun was gone, the scent of wildflowers replaced by that from the wood on which Shadow’s tired bones had slept for some hours, in the small shed by the tracks. As he stretched his legs lazily against the logs, memories of his dream vanished.
It was cold and he was hungry but it no longer rained. It was time to go play tricks.
He came out on the rooftop of the shed. It was dark but this didn’t matter much; his amber eyes adjusted well and, in any case, he navigated mostly by smell.
After a minute or two, he jumped to the top of a wall, on which he walked swiftly, his long tail drifting in the air behind him, slowly swinging left and right. From the wall he jumped down to a rusted tractor that had been frozen for decades and finally back down to the wet grass.
Shadow went down to the channel and, stretching his neck, wet his red hairy tongue several times. The water was refreshing, albeit cold.
He then set off to the main square, with its many odors, sweet and foul.
He ran fruitlessly after a crow which took to the white trees lazily. Perched on a branch, the black bird cawed twice.
Shadow looked up and meowed and took satisfaction in how deep and strong his voice sounded. One day he would finally catch a crow, like he thought Mother had, back before disappearing.
Shadow pissed under a bush with yellow flowers. The strong smell shadowed all others and he was quick to cover it with soil. He noticed a worm. He brought his noise to it and gave it a nudge with his left paw but decided to leave it alone.
He walked away, again towards the old town, stopping only to smell his way. Someone was cooking pork. There was a squirrel not too far. The bark of the birches and the aroma of roses reached his nostrils.
Suddenly, he caught wind of the delicious and mysterious whiff he had first perceived just a week before.
He drifted from his path, determined he'd this time actually find the source. This was the one scent a male cat was unable to resist. He tried to hurry but the enchanting fragrance was still distant and weak.
The wind turned and the smell dissolved in the cold of the night. He stopped briefly, nose raised to the wind. He sensed the bark—oils on his fur from the wood on which he had slept—, freshly dug ground, and, once again, a murder of crows not too far off. Some dog had peed on a nearby tree some hours ago but no other trace of him remained. Some ducks floated in the channel. He meowed once or twice. His moist black nose pulsed slightly, still lifted to the moon. An abandoned nest laid nearby.
Shadow backtracked for half a minute. His whiskers finally registered another change in the wind and brought back the desired scent. Inhaling deeply, taking in the luscious fragrance, isolating it from thousands of familiar odors, Shadow managed, once again, to lock in on it.
Arrested, he started following it, through alleys, ditches, fences, and bridges, a path that twisted and turned, a gnarled thread in a tangle of wool.
So was his resolve that he ignored the many olfactory warnings of the presence of several other male cats, older cats, bigger cats, hornier cats, meaner cats, nearby. He smelled them before he heard them and he heard them meow and hiss before he saw them but it didn't matter: his eyes would soon lay upon the angel his nose sang of.
A big calico cat ran into him from behind a bush. It had a half-healed wound across his forehead finishing just above his left eye.
The spell broke. Shadow tried to jump back, to scratch the attacker, scare him away, but ended up getting his paw caught by those of his enemy. The other cat bit his paw hard. Shadow flinched as the other cat bit hard and didn't let go—the excruciating pain immediately joined by the odor of blood. It all happened in an instant. Shadow finally managed to claw the mouth of the bully, causing him to recoil.
Jumping back, his arched back menacingly, Shadow puffed-up, a fortress of hatred. Blood dripped onto the filthy cobblestones. His tongue, a red flame, hung between his teeth as he hissed as loud as his vocal chords would, whiskers and ears cautiously retracted. He did his best to ignore the throbbing pain from his paw.
The other monster, eyes locked with Shadow, alternated between hissing back and snarling, returning the threats and showing Shadow the saber-shaped canine teeth that had just drawn blood. Its tail raised vertically until the very tip, which bent at an angle.
Shadow had but a split second to assess the situation. They were not the only cats—there were several others—and they’d all be in this strange vicious trance; at least two others were closing in on them, though he could not yet see them.
Shadow started slowly backing away, still hissing, hair standing on end.
Accepting Shadow's surrender, the Calico turned and kept after the mysterious scent.
Shadow went back, limping. He hid in a field near a scarecrow wearing a red helmet and, thinking of Mother, licked his paw, which hurt like hell, until the bleeding stopped. One day would come when he would be the one to dispel the other cats.
“Here, kitty!” said a woman as she saw Shadow across the street. She had an old blanket wrapped around her and laid on a mattress on the street by the green wooden gate leading to a toy store that wouldn’t open until Monday. A man sat next to her, smoking.
Shadow crossed the street and approached them cautiously, limping slightly. They hadn’t showered in many days and their several layers of clothing hadn't been washed in even longer. They had eaten recently; they might still have food, maybe in the old bag resting between them. An open bottle with something foul rested besides the man.
The woman sat up and reached out to Shadow, brushing her thumb against her index and middle fingers.
“Meow!” Shadow walked to her, extending his long whiskers and nose, trying to read her intentions.
“Aww, isn’t he cute?”
Not saying anything, the man took a drag from his cigarette, gave the cat a brief glance through his thick glasses, and looked away letting smoke out of his lungs.
Shadow reached the woman and rubbed his whiskers and the side of his face against her hand. He liked the smell of her greasy fingers. His cheek was pushed up briefly and she felt the side of his teeth run gently against her skin.
“Here, kitty, kitty!” She smiled at Shadow. “Ernie, we ought to adopt him!”
The man laughed and his laughter turned into a coughing fit that nearly made him lose his glasses.
Shadow rubbed his head thrice against the woman’s hand and once against her leg. She scratched him gently behind his ears and patted his head. He purred briefly.
The man stopped coughing but still he said nothing. Shadow reminded him of Lucy, an old and stubborn cat he had once had, long ago.
How Lucy loved sardines! He remembered playful Lucy knocking down a potted plant, lazy Lucy sleeping on the bed by their feet, silly Lucy leaving the carcass of a small yellow bird by the bed, God knows how she had caught her. Elizabeth, the woman he lived with back then, had explained that it was a tribute.
He was assaulted by the memories of Elizabeth: days of long baths, love making, stinky cheeses, bottles of wine, and the smell of books and ink drying. He remembered how incredibly loud Elizabeth used to laugh her obnoxious laugh every chance she got and how, in the beginning, he used to go see her play the violin every Tuesday.
He remembered the big fight and how sad it had made him when fucking Elizabeth left him for the pathetic clown trombonist, taking Lucy with her. What a joke! Talk about depression. At least he didn't have to put up with her high-pitched laugh anymore, so there was that.
And then came the breakdown; they had loaded him up on so many kinds of medications, he was seeing little green men with spider legs jumping out of trees.
He hadn't thought of Lucy or Elizabeth in a very long time.
Shadow took a few steps towards the man, who had taken his hat off and was scratching his bald head with his eyes closed. The few hairs he still had were all white. His thoughts were interrupted by Shadow, who rubbed his head against the man's leg.
The man shoved Shadow aside violently, nearly kicking him, which sent a jolt of pain to Shadow's wounded paw. “Out of here, fucking piece of shit!”
Shadow fled for a few seconds, until he ascertained he was not chased. Shadow turned to look at the couple. The man held the bottle to his lips.
“Dammit, Ernie,” complained the fat woman, “he just wants to play. Why are you always so mean?”
“Leave me alone,” said the man, both to her and Shadow, taking another drag from his cigarette and returning to his troubled thoughts.
“Here, kitty, kitty,” said the woman, rubbing her fingers again. “Here! Mishy, mishy!”
Shadow licked his wounded paw and gave the beggars a long sideways gaze through his yellow eyes before deciding to continue the way he had come.
“Come back, kitty! Kitty!” The woman sighed as he got away. “See what you did, Ernie?” She shook her head as she laid down again.
The man offered the woman the bottle but she turned her back on him and ignored him.
Oliver left the pub, said goodbye to his four friends, and walked briskly. It was supposed to snow the next day.
As he walked past the couple in the toy store, two coins and a heavy screw jingled loudly at the bottom of a metal cup that the old man shook vigorously.
The old man tried to speak but only managed a cough.
“Spare a coin, sir?” asked the woman and tried to smile.
Oliver said nothing and walked past them.
He reached the station with five or six minutes to spare. His train was the last one running that night.
He glanced at two groups of people also waiting for the train, most of them drunk, as he was, and decided to put some distance between them.
As he approached the bench on the further end of the station, he noticed the paper bag from the restaurant. It stood sideways, the wind ruffling it slightly though not yet dragging it. It annoyed him that people didn’t bother properly disposing of their trash. Assholes.
As he got closer, he noticed a beautiful piece of glossy black cloth spilling out of it, perhaps a shall. He regarded it for a few seconds. This was actually an animal’s hide, it must have costed a fortune! It reflected the combined white light from the street lanterns and the ghostly moon.
Shadow, back in the prairie, his stomach full, ran, besides Cindy, after a little mouse.
It seemed to Oliver that the fur shook slightly. He scrutinized it but it remained still; the wind must have shaken it. Extending his leg timidly, Oliver tapped it gently with the tip of his pointy leather shoe.
In a single movement, Cindy and the mouse gone, Shadow, startled, jumped up and turned, on his feet, back in the painful present. After a night of many tricks, it was time to disappear!
Oliver, equally startled, took a step back and watched as the pitch black patch that was Shadow ran away as fast as his three healthy legs and his wounded one would carry him, fading out in the night.

A Bright-Red Caquelon

Günther turns to the wall, away from the window; sun rays filter through wooden blinds, casting bright shapes over the elephant silhouettes in the khaki sheets. He buries his head under the pillow.
Discarding the blankets, he stays in bed for a few more minutes. It’s going to be a hot Sunday. He feels a pang of pain in his forehead.
Eventually he sits down, sticking his feet in his brown slippers. He lets out a yawn as he reaches out to grab his thick rimmed spectacles from his bedside table and puts them on. With his index, he rubs the tip of his nose upwards twice and wiggles his toes a few times before standing up.
He walks to the large tank in the hall. Two goldfish swim excitedly towards him, rubbing against the glass, knowing they’ll soon get their much needed pinch of daily sustenance. He rubs his fingers over the water and for a minute or two watches them open and close their mouths in the surface. He scratches his butt.
In the kitchen he sets some water to boil; coffee ought to attenuate his headache. Last night saw a colony of dirty glasses take the sink for a nest; he’ll deal with them later. He brings two empty bottles of red wine to the recycling pile by the bathroom.
In the bathroom, he sits on the toilet briefly. Afterwards, he eyes himself on the mirror as he washes his hands. He is thirty-seven now. His hair is a mess. He fishes out a black speck from his upper right canine and lets the water rinse it away. The cold water feels refreshing in the dry skin of his white hands. Cupping his fingers, he drinks a mouthful and a bit of water lands on the neck of his pajama. He takes off his glasses, sets them on the counter, and rubs his eyes.
The boards creak as he walks back to the kitchen. The water hasn’t boiled. He throws some coffee into the press, takes the remains of a Black Forest cake out of the fridge and, after setting a slice on a plate, goes to sit at the dining room. He must see to a lot of things today.
The rays of the afternoon sun shine brightly through the windows in the living room; a large plant leans its many branches imperceptibly towards them.
There, in the middle of the dining table, he sees it: the bright-red fondue pot Joe and Allison brought him last night. He feels another pang of pain in his head as he sits down.
He remembers how the previous night eight or nine pairs of eyes had fixated on him, dissecting his every reaction. He had faked a smile, faked curiosity, naturally, as Allison, shortly after she arrived with Joe, took it out of a bag and handed it to him. It had come in a box that had been carefully wrapped in yellow paper, paper which had silhouettes of giraffes on it. Or was it zebras? The paper must still be somewhere in the living room, under the coffee table or by the sofa, next to the large plant. Zebras, giraffes, what did it matter?
What was it Joe had said? “You have to guess what it is,” something to that effect. Allison had laughed excitedly. Well, Günther had known immediately, before unwrapping it, what it was: it was something he didn’t want, it was something he didn't need.
He had torn the paper with the silhouettes away and looked at the box. The box had a photograph of the fondue pot inside. Was this some sort of joke? A caquelon in the middle of summer? They had to know he already owned one; didn’t he invite Joe to eat fondue once, two or three years ago? He had wondered if the box held something else inside, but had quickly come to the conclusion that it didn’t: Joe wasn’t one to play childish games like those.
“Happy birthday, Günther,” had said Joe solemnly as he shook his hand.
“Thanks, Joe! And thank you too, Allison,” Günther had said, doing what he could to prolong his insincere smile. “It’s nice of you,” he had managed to add.
“Of course!” she had said. “Happy birthday!” She had given him a quick hug.
“You shouldn’t have,” he had heard himself saying with a sad hint of irony.
“You’re a very good friend,” Joe had said. “We just wanted to give you something. Though it really is nothing.”
Günther had felt a restrained jolt of joy shake his bones. Joe was a good friend. Günther was very grateful to have met Joe, the old fox; though they didn't see eye to eye on many things—such as the merits of giving presents—, Joe's conversation certainly enriched his life.
But the jolt quickly vanished. Alas, this wasn’t nothing: it was a big fondue pot, and bright red too, and it included six long-stemmed forks. They had taken the whole thing out of the box and installed it in his dining table, a boat invading a sea of oak, for everyone to admire.
The kettle starts hissing. The boards creak again as Günther goes to the kitchen. After killing the fire, he pours water into the carafe and brings the press, along with a mug, to the dining room, where he sets a timer for two minutes and forty-five seconds.
In his chair, he wiggles his toes inside his slippers and examines the wretched thing. He doesn’t have enough room in his kitchen for two fondue pots and he’s not going to get rid of his old faithful caquelon: no doubt the sober gray of its metal suits his taste much better than this flashy red ceramic.
After all these years of friendship, has Joe really not learned how much Günther despises presents? Didn’t they talk about it the other day? Günther remembers asking Joe whether he has ever finished a book given to him as a present but he no longer remembers his answer. He probably said yes, always the contrarian. Still, this must be Allison’s doing, the bloody hippy.
Leaning back on his chair, he eats a bit of cake. It’s cold. The timer gives a little metallic buzz. As he presses down the plunger, steam comes out the press, the scent of fresh coffee. He sighs and pours his coffee wondering whether or not he'll celebrate his next birthday.
He fancies that the pot looks back at him menacingly, ready to pounce on him with its six long legs with tiny toes and knock down his glasses, sting him with its tail, devour his face, gnaw at his bones. In his mind, he sees himself pushing it aside violently with his arm; the pot falls down to the floor and breaks into four large pieces and that’s the end of it. He lets out a chuckle followed by another sigh as he feels another pang of pain in his temples.
He will have to get rid of it; they’ll probably take it at the second hand shop that’s on the way to the train station. But what will Joe say? He’ll probably be upset. Oh, well. Besides, Allison’s birthday is coming up; surely they’re not expecting him to get her a present too? A pair of gloves would have to do.

A Swollen Woman

Phil’s phone goes off. He rubs his fingers against the napkin on his lap before fishing it out of his pocket.
“Feel free to take it,” says his friend.
“Ugh. Sorry,” says Phil. “I should.”
His gaze switches from his friend to the horizon, seeing without seeing, as he answers. “Hey,” he says. “Having dinner. Let’s talk in a bit?”
“Sure,” she says. “I really need to talk with you.”
“Alright.” He registers the tone of urgency in her voice. “I’ll call you,” he says.
“Sorry,” he says to his friend, returning the phone to his jacket. “Catalina.” He grabs a slice of pizza and bites it.
“Still in touch?” His friend raises an eyebrow.
Phil shrugs.
“Didn’t you say you wanted to break it off?”
“Yeah.” Phil nods and drinks beer. “We talk less frequently now, maybe once per week,” he explains. “I think she’s beginning to get the picture.”
“Just flat-out tell her you’re not interested, no?”
“I guess.” Phil shrugs again.
“Cata?” says Phil into his phone as he crosses the street.
“Hey, baby.”
“How are you?” asks Phil, as a couple walks past him, hand in hand.
Catalina takes a long deep breath. “Where are you now?”
“Waiting for my tram. What’s up?”
“I really need to talk with you.”
She sounds serious.
“What is it?” asks Phil.
She sighs.
“Hello?” asks Phil.
“What time is it over there?”
Phil checks his watch. “10 p.m.. 4 p.m. there, right?”
Phil starts walking slowly.
“Yeah,” she answers eventually.
“Are you okay?”
She sighs. “Where do I begin...”
A motorcycle drives by with its engine reverberating loudly. Phil sees a brown cat jump away, disappearing behind some bushes.
“Hello?” asks Phil. “Cata, my phone might die anytime soon.” Fucking batteries, always running out.
“I’m sorry, it’s just... I don’t know how to tell you this.”
Phil ponders. Maybe she’ll finally grant him a gracious way out of their precarious relationship? “Start from the beginning?”
“Okay.” She takes a big breath. “This morning, on the way to work, I had a pretty bad accident.”
“What?” Phil frowns slightly; this is not what he envisioned. “Car accident?”
“What happened?” He stops near the garden that swallowed the cat and leans down to look for her. He finds no trace so he resumes his stroll.
“The car is totaled; I had to call a crane.”
“Whoah, that sucks! Are you okay?”
“Well, nothing happened to me,” she says. “Luckily; it could have been much worse.”
“Oh, good. I’m glad. That’s what really matters.” Having reached the end of the tram stop, Phil turns around and begins retracing his steps. “How did it happen?”
“It doesn’t really matter,” she says.
Phil hesitates. “I’m sorry,” he says finally and he takes his phone away from his ear quickly to check the dreaded battery indicator. The phone will die soon.
“A car jumped the separator, came the wrong way, and fast. We crashed practically head-on. This guy... he must have fallen asleep at the wheel.”
“Ugh, seriously?”
“Where was it?” asks Phil, though he’s not very familiar with her city.
“It doesn’t matter. Listen, I...” She trails off again.
“What about the people in the other car? Are they okay?” The tram ought to arrive anytime now.
“I don’t know, Phil. I think the guy broke some ribs.”
Phil sits down in a bench. “Fuck, suppo-.”
“Listen,” she interrupts him, “I got this bruise so I decided to see my uncle Roberto. He’s a doctor, remember?”
“Right.” Phil vaguely remembers having met him when he came to visit Catalina; he met so many people it’s all a bit fussy. “How bad is your bruise?”
“It’s just a purple spot from the seat belt. But better safe than sorry, right?”
“Right.” He sees the tram coming down the streets three blocks away. “Good. I’m glad you’re okay.”
“Well, there’s mo-”
“Look, my stupid phone is really dying now, I can call you in half an hour, once I’m home.”
Another long pause. “Sure,” she says.
Phil presses the button on the tram door. He hops in and finds an empty seat behind a sleek guy with a large afro. “We could continue talking, but we...”
“I’ll wait for your call,” she says and hangs up.
He looks at his phone and shoves it in his pocket. He really ought to buy a new one.
During his ride, Phil imagines Catalina’s green car crashing against a blue car. Bang! There’s a flash of shattered glass and Catalina storms out furious, to find the other driver waking up to the pain of a broken rib.
Phil met Catalina in a beach resort where both were taking a break from their studies. He was travelling with friends; she with her mother and an aunt.
After two days exchanging casual glances, Phil abandoned his friends and swam to her in the ocean.
“Hey, you,” he said.
She turned to face him. The water reached her shoulders; her long brown hair was soaked. She had to cover the sun with her fingers to see him.
“Oh, hi!” She smiled.
“I’m Phil.”
“I’m Catalina.”
He raised his hand over the surface and offered it to her awkwardly.
She laughed and shook his hand. “Nice to meet you, Phil.”
They hit it off. He got along with her family so well that she invited him to visit her in her hometown and, when three weeks later—before the end of the summer break—he came for ten days, she introduced him to everyone in her life.
Having brewed some tea, Phil takes off his shoes and sits down on the olive sofa in his living room. He unbuckles his brown belt. He clears his throat as the phone, now plugged to the wall, rings.
“Hi, Phil.”
“Hey. I’m sorry,” he says.
“Home now?”
Phil observes the steam rising slowly from his yellow mug, swerving and disappearing in the air.
“So... what happened to your car?”
“I don’t give a fuck about the car!” she says.
“Geez, okay!”
“Listen, I went to see the doctor, my uncle, right? He checked me and said there’s nothing wrong with my bruise, with the accident but... well, he... he said, uh... he said he’d want to run more tests because...”
She laughs emptily. He imagines her shaking her head in disbelief. “He actually congratulated me.”
“Congratulated you?”
“He said I’m pregnant.”
“What?” The wooden skeleton of the sofa creaks softly as Phil straightens his back and his weight shifts. Ugh, having a kid with Catalina—who was, effectively, a stranger, living far away—would be... tough, to say the least. He’s not prepared to have children, he’s only twenty-three, he must finish university first! A rush of adrenaline begins to cloud his thinking. “Er, you’re...”
“Relax,” she says. “I’m not.”
“Hmm.” What was it Catalina had said about abortion? Phil thinks back, trying to recall a conversation they once had, as she drove him through some lush mountains around her city. Had she said she supported abortion? Phil no longer remembers.
An image forms in his mind where he’s holding a baby, holding his baby. The baby is wrapped in a blue blanket and cries with both eyes closed. He scratches the top of his head and then his armpit. This isn’t the life Phil wants, this isn’t a life he can afford to have. Fuck.
“He said I have to be pregnant. At least three months.”
Phil does the math; that would be roughly the time they met. Fuck! He considers briefly the headaches of paternity tests. How do you demand one from your partner?
“I told him it’s impossible,” says Catalina. “I’ve been getting my periods.”
“I see,” says Phil, his distress receding as her reassurances finally take root. “So you’re definitely not pregnant?”
Phil nods and sighs with relief. “Okay...”
“He said if I’m not pregnant, there’s something else. We decided to run some tests.”
Phil feels the dryness in his mouth and reaches forward for his tea, from which steam no longer rises. He sets it back on the coffee table after a small sip.
“I don’t know how to...” she says.
Phil says nothing.
“Well, it turns out... I’m sick, Phil.”
“I might have cancer.”
“Jesus fucking Christ.”
“I have a giant tumor,” she goes on. “It basically ate my whole left ovary.”
“Seriously?” He spots a dark spider crawling on the wall.
She begins crying. “It’s huge, Phil. Roberto could tell something was up just by looking at me!”
Phil scratches his head between clumps of hair. “I’m... I’m sorry!”
“They ran some exams. Big machines, deafening, nauseating. The oncologist said my ovary—or rather, this evil thing growing inside me, invading me, this... this alien tissue, this fucking abomination, this... tumor—is bigger than my lungs.”
“Ugh,” said Phil. “You hadn’t noticed it?”
“No. It’s very obvious now, though. I do feel very swollen on the left. Is it possible that it got inflamed with the crash? I don't know...”
“I see.” Phil takes another sip of tea, wondering what to say.
“They’re running more exams tomorrow. The oncologist said we should remove it as soon as possible. I might even have surgery tomorrow or Thursday.”
“Ugh, man. I’m so so so so sorry, Catalina!” He lets his head fall back against the sofa and looks at the rooftop. “I don’t know what to say.”
“Depending on the type of tumor they may remove both ovaries.”
“Fuck,” says Phil. “But that would me-”
“Yeah. I would no longer be able to conceive,” she says coldly, distancing herself from the possibility.
“Let’s not get ahead, I’m sure it won’t come to that,” says Phil.
“How can you say that? How can you know?”
Phil frowns. He can’t.
He thinks back to a long conversation they had in some cozy bar when he went to visit her. She said this world is so messed up she would never bring new creatures to it; if she was to have children, she’d adopt. Of this Phil is certain.
“Can you imagine if I lost the potential to become a mother?”
The black spider disappears behind the corner.
“What kind of woman would I become? I would feel so incomplete, damaged... like I’ve forever lost something sacred.” She starts crying again.
This changes everything. He makes up his mind. “We have to be strong, Kitty. We’ll be alright,” he says, trying to sound confident and clutching the phone tightly. The phone feels hot against his cheek and his head is beginning to hurt. He starts considering the implications of missing the next few days at work.
“I’m glad to have you to get through this, Pip,” she says. “I don’t know if I could deal with this alone.”