Sunday Rumpus Fiction: One Small Victory

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This hellish life. His sunburned face and keen eyes didn’t give him away, but the grip of hunger took control of fourteen-year-old Fishhead and made him want to steal food, as if the act seemed the most natural thing to do. He didn’t like to steal and made a promise to stop as soon as he came across a meal, although he didn’t know where his family’s next meal would come from. He resisted the dried, hardened bread with ants on the cement kitchen counter; always old, dried bread. The stale coffee made with chicory, which he warmed on the kerosene wick stove again and again until the metal pot stood empty. He hated chicory, its nasty, dry flavor, but coffee with chicory came in small packets at the corner shop, bought for a few paise. Mom struggled to pay for that, too. Fishhead drank water to push down the bitterness of the coffee with the stale bread that he ate and shared with little brother Kishore and sister Lily, bread he would rather eat himself.

Now he leaned against the rear corner of the five-story tenement building, the chawl, a labor camp in northeastern Bombay where he lived on the ground floor with his family. He put a hand in the left pocket of his dirty shorts and rolled three glass marbles between his fingers, his gleaming yellow cat’s eye striker being one of them. He owned these and became attached to the marbles he won fair and square in local street matches, although they did nothing to improve the condition of his life in this neglected neighborhood of Chembur. He loved the game of marbles and became very good at it, some kind of street champion, but marbles could not feed him. Marbles had to wait.

Barefoot, he brought his right foot up along the corner of the building and let it rest behind the other knee, and he cursed his family’s fate. He spat to the right of him and pushed back his straight, uncut black hair when it fell across his forehead and high cheekbones. The heat of the morning pressed against his browned skin and face.

Mom did so much. He thought of her now and considered the little money she earned at the telephone exchange, most of which Dad put in his pocket and spent—drinking, treating himself to meals outside, and betting on rummy and horses at Mahalaxmi race track. The temptation to gamble with marbles enticed Fishhead, although he did not see his love for the game as a problem. He spat again when the wind shifted and the smell of garbage struck his nostrils. About twenty feet or so to the left of him at the back of the building lay piles of trash and debris spread over an area the size of a small compound. He spotted two girls he did not know, and little brother Kishore, all sorting through the trash and looking for things to eat in the heat. A pair of mangy dogs pushed their muzzles deep into the heaps.

Fishhead stepped away from the garbage piles and turned west in the unbearable heat, the three glass marbles in his pocket. He followed the unpaved side road leading out to the marketplace, which grew as a series of shacks on both sides—shops with vendors who sold vegetables, dry goods, and packaged items, fried snacks, sweetmeats, oil, fresh yogurt and whey in large shallow vats, and eggs, kites, and bangles.

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Fishhead thought of Anupa now, wondering what her mother had planned for lunch. How did Anupa eat at the table? This middle-class girl. He liked her. Did she have a proper or messy manner? Maybe she liked to use her fingers like most Indians did, like he did. Did she use a fork and knife? He did not think Anupa would invite him home to eat a meal, and knew that he would not invite her to the tenement for the same reason.

Everything tempted Fishhead in the marketplace, the very abundance of it, and his stomach pinched him even more. Crows circled above and swooped in small groups to the ground, and he wanted to be as a crow, to be able to come down and take what suited him. Be as clever as the crow, he admitted. The marketplace had its fair share of wild chickens and flies. A cow or goat here and there. The open area smelled of dry earth, waste, and fresh vegetables, and the odor of burning gasoline, of motor oil, rose and fell with the flow of heavy motorized traffic and bicycles. People moved about on their feet, too, but the marketplace in the daytime appeared less busy. The crowds came in the evenings, making it more difficult for him to move through the area or run away after he lifted something; Fishhead had learned the right times to work his hands.

He approached the vegetable shack, but stayed close to the low table with cucumbers, tomatoes, eggplant, and cauliflower all arranged in small heaps in wide, shallow wicker baskets just outside the front of the shop. Three customers waited to be served before him, so he reached for a big tomato that sat in the basket away from the vendor’s sight. A stout man, the vendor wore a mustache and white wrap around his head to match his beige dhoti, the loincloth, which danced in the light breeze under the man’s white, long-sleeved Oxford shirt. Fishhead made sure no one watched him, when he leaned in close and pulled the tomato off the basket and let it drop to the ground, but not before he interrupted the fall with the top of his foot. He didn’t want the tomato to break open as it touched the dirt. When it came to rest, he kicked it gently out from under the table so that it rolled away and paused near the south wall of the shack.

Then he leaned in and bumped into a female customer to create a distraction. “Sorry, sorry,” he said, nodding, as the customer looked back at him with contempt then faced the shopkeeper again. Fishhead raised a hand. “Do you sell tamarind? Mother needs tamarind,” he asked the vendor, looking to get his attention, and he dropped another tomato to the ground the same way as before, tapping it from under the table with a foot. “No, I don’t. Not this week,” the vendor said as he weighed a handheld scale with string beans for a customer. The metal scale rang when the iron measuring weights touched it. “Okay then, thanks,” Fishhead said and pulled himself away. He walked around the side of the shack. A rooster, hen, and four chicks came up along the side wall there and aimed for the tomatoes just as he approached his catch. “Those are mine,” he said, and reached down to pick up the tomatoes. He thrust his foot out to drive away the birds, and they retreated with open wings, clucking in a frenzy. He picked up his catch and headed for the snack shop to the north. On the way there, he dropped a tomato into a pocket of his shorts and wiped the other one clean on the sleeve of his tee. He took a generous bite and the tomato burst in his mouth, firm and sweet. Juice ran down the side of his arm as he ate, so he lifted his arm to slurp the wet lines that formed and that drew a pair of flies to him.

The snack shop he liked stood near the end of the line of shops on that side of the road, but Fishhead had to pass the eunuch-transvestite shack. Early in his life, he’d learned the truth about these hijras; often castrated adult males and young boys, eunuchs had their testicles removed at an early age. They walked through neighborhoods in groups to shower their blessings and request money during auspicious occasions like childbirth, weddings, and formal ceremonies. They showed up uninvited if need be to perform chants and dances, or to bless or beg, and beg they did with style. Fishhead had learned something else about these members of the third sex: they also behaved like prostitutes and serviced men to earn a living, sometimes marrying men in secret. They lived as outsiders, and he’d felt as an outsider like them, although he had never been ridiculed in public in the same way that people treated them for their bold behavior. And yet Fishhead became uneasy around the hijras. He avoided them. The history of the eunuchs stretched beyond his time. He had studied the epic narrative of the Ramayana, had learned to read and write with this written history of his people. In the epic, Lord Rama had bestowed on the eunuchs a special gift—blessing others—because these outcast males stayed with him when he fled the kingdom of Ayodhya in exile. Mughal kings too once employed the eunuchs in courts and trusted them to keep secrets, often with severe consequences, sometimes a beheading if the eunuchs betrayed their kings. The eunuchs fascinated and scared Fishhead, and he stayed out of their way even as he admired their bold ways and attitudes, which reminded him of his own solitary behavior.

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He approached their shack now. It flashed with color: cobalt, green, deep orange, and yellow painted on the outside, like the bright female clothes the males wore—flared skirts, saris, and blouses with tight sleeves down to their elbows—and heavy costume jewelry, their long dark hair, the strong makeup, and their bold, provocative conversations and song. Skirts hiked up, hands on their crotches. To see it again, a fucking delight.

Three adult eunuchs sat on the steps of the shack with a child among them. An adult braided the child’s thick black hair. Fishhead put his head down because he did not want to catch their attention, and feared they would reach for him or make some sexual comment as they clapped their hands with flat open palms when they acknowledged him with the words: Chakka, chakka, chakka! The way of the clap suggesting their non-gendered status. Fishhead’s heart raced and he began to hurry past the shack, but it seemed as if they followed him with their stares. He became unsteady now, weaker.

“Hey kid, come here,” an adult eunuch said. “Come get my blessings, kid.” “Let me sing and dance for you,” the child, about ten years old, began. Then it rose from the adult’s lap like a dream and moved toward Fishhead, singing. “Let me stroke your cheek and take your hand. Won’t you dance with me? Sing and dance with me. Give me one small victory.” They clapped together with flattened palms, getting louder, adults engaging now in song. Chakka, chakka!

“No, no thank you,” Fishhead said, embarrassed, his voice faltering. “Come get our blessings, kid. No harm done. We won’t curse you either.” “Please, no. Don’t curse me.” And suddenly, the image of the colorful group flooded his vision like a glare from the sun that smacked his eyes, blurring his focus and showing a wide ring of light. Bangles began chinking, bangles chinking, glinting, and voices purring. Skirts went up and down before him, up and down, seducing him. He imagined a thousand arms like the bodies of hairline-thin dark snakes twisting and luring him toward the shack. His knees went limp and he stumbled when the outside of his right foot came to rest on a small quarry stone by mistake, and the stone shot out from under him like a marble after being struck during one of his games. He caught himself and quickened his pace, and wished he had wings so he could disappear into the trees like crows. The marketplace had few trees. But no one paid the encounter any attention, and Fishhead secretly wished someone would interrupt the eunuchs so he could get away. Invisible to the world around them, they kept to themselves, but the eunuchs blinded him now.

He moved away from the shack as fast as he could and became bolder, apprehension thrusting recklessness into his heart like a dagger. He soon came to the egg store, three shops down from the snack shop, but the owner had stepped away, perhaps to answer a call of nature nearby. A rusting bicycle stood straight back on its hind stand, too near the doorway and in front of egg cages that almost reached Fishhead’s shoulders. He whistled. Eggs in wire and wood cartons stacked high on the luggage carrier of the cycle, two feet tall. A tight mesh of rope held the cartons together. He reached the eggs on top of the luggage carrier and thrust his right hand between the rope mesh, showing great care. He freed two eggs and would have taken three or four, but when he paused to contemplate his loot, he felt a hand grip his shoulder. Fishhead froze and broke into a cold sweat.

“What do you think you’re doing?” a thin bearded man asked. The owner. He had a slight limp on his right leg and wore a cream shirt over his plaid loincloth. Fishhead didn’t stop to reason. “I’m dying of hunger,” he said and broke away from the firm grip of the man’s hand. He made a dash behind the shacks so he wouldn’t be noticed in the marketplace, and his feet kicked up a cloud of dust. The marbles knocked against each other in his pocket. “Stop, stop, you shameless rascal. Thief, stop him!” the man shouted. “Budmaash! Beysharam!”

The marketplace appeared to come to a standstill, on alert for the sound of warning that pierced the air. But the street traffic had picked up, and rickshaws, cars, and trucks moved with horns blaring and motors surging and sputtering. The man’s cries died quickly. Fishhead ran as fast as his legs carried him, the eggs in his hands, and he took care not to press them too tight. He wound between shops to distract and confuse any voluntary allies of the shouting egg-man. That bearded bastard! The shouting egg-man man did not know what hunger meant.

No matter, to get caught would mean he, Fishhead, would receive a beating by the public right there on the street, kicked even as he lay on the ground, and he’d get hauled into the police station afterwards for more beatings. He didn’t want to get caught or identified so close to home, but more than this he didn’t want the incident to come to his parents’ attention, which would result in a third round of beatings. He had been in trouble before for fights, cheating at school, teasing his sister Lily, drinking, and stealing, and he did not care to face his father’s belt or stick. Sometimes dad used his fist or the back of his hand, and Fishhead liked the stick better; it felt like the principal’s merciless oiled cane that reddened both his palms almost daily, swelling them. The public, police, and his parents would see no reason for excusing his behavior from an act of hunger.

He stopped running when his legs grew tired and the air went out of his lungs. He’d reached an unused metal and stone junkyard near the quarry with a broken gate a quarter mile to the north of the marketplace. He felt a wetness at the side of his thigh. The tomato had split open in his pant pocket, and when he reached down to get it, being nervous and tense as he had become from the flight, his shaking fingers pierced the flesh of the fruit and caused the juices to spurt out. He took the messy ball out of his wet pocket and tore the flesh with his teeth, somewhat frustrated by his situation and a bit mad at himself, too. He studied the two eggs in the other hand. Still intact, good. What a mess he’d have if he smashed them, too.

In the quiet junkyard he approached a heap of used steel sheets and painted car doors, some turning to rust. Too hot the touch. So he sat down there under the noon sun with the eggs in his hand. He took the end of his tee and wiped down a flat and smooth area of one car door, all black in color, which belonged to a Bombay taxi once. The door burned. He spat on the painted metal and the saliva dried up seconds later. He spat a few times again and wiped the area clean with another part of his tee, and he pulled his head back to hide from the emerging sounds and squeaks, because his hands rubbed and banged on the door. Now he started to cry and couldn’t stop the tears. He’d found a way to beat his hunger until the next meal, and he didn’t know when that would be. Hunger, his acts from hunger, made him cry.

He cracked one egg and dropped its contents on top of the clean area and heard it sizzle and cook; he threw away the wet shell, and flies found it. He punched the yolk with an index finger and guided the yellow liquid so it wouldn’t run on the surface. His finger burned, but he paid it no attention. The smell of the frying egg pinched his hunger more, and he couldn’t wait to eat it. He looked for a small stone with a flat edge to it, and he found one then wiped the stone clean with his tee. He began to scrape off the edges of the egg and turned the center over to sear it on the hot door, and then he dropped the sharp stone near him and rolled up the fried egg in haste and brought it up to his mouth. Fishhead blew on the egg, hoping to cool the meal, and then he ate in a hurry, pushing the egg with both hands into his mouth and giving himself no pause to breathe in any air. He reached for the stone again and scraped off parts of the egg, which still stuck to the door, and he ate the little pieces.

Moments later, he broke the second egg on the hot door, but jumped when a developing embryo fell out of the shell and landed on the dark painted surface. The embryo resembled the yellow cat’s eye in his favorite marble, his striker. “Damn you!” he said. “Damn you for being born!” He stared at the embryo, unable to move and unwilling to eat now. “You deserve better,” he added, and quickly nudged it with the edge of his hand-held stone until the embryo dropped to the dirt. He scraped the edges of the egg whites that had begun to cook and he put them in his mouth.

Then he stepped away to a pair of chest-high, fiery paper flower bushes at the edge of the fenced yard that met the road there, and he pressed down on the ground with his feet. The ground felt dry and hot. He found a short piece of rebar and another sharp rock with a point. He began to dig a hole and remove the dirt, but it took him longer than he imagined. When he reached a gap about as deep as his open hand, he made his way back to the dirt-covered embryo and picked it up gently, and he placed it on the flat side of the sharp rock that he took with him. Fishhead returned to the site of the bushes, where he got down on his haunches and let the embryo drop into the hole. He buried the egg with the dirt and filled the hole.

The glaring sun, its white hot light dug through the sockets of his eyes and pressed against his spine to reach his feet. Then, turning away as if in darkness, he got up slowly from his haunches and tried to regain his balance, but two marbles fell out of his pocket and dropped to the ground as he rose. One hit the top of the yellow cat’s eye striker that came out first. He heard them fall. Fishhead rubbed his open hands on the dirt to remove any hint of the raw egg and he patted them against each other to get rid of the dirt. He wiped his hands on his shorts then checked the marbles. They hadn’t chipped, good. He put the marbles back in his left pocket, and he picked up the sharp rock he’d used to make the hole. He threw the rock high and far into the air; it made a wide arc and sank into the shallow valley ahead of him. He saw the far edge of the large pond in the valley but did not hear the rock drop into the pond. He turned away instantly.

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He would do again what he did in the market, only this time he’d choose a different place. He noticed some activity at the other end of the junkyard, so he left it and made his way home by taking an unfamiliar path far from the egg shop. Someone there would recognize him, and he didn’t want to be pursued. He feared being recognized for the wrong reasons. The image of the child eunuch dancing and singing and clapping before him flashed in his mind again. Her words, the child’s words as she sang to him. He couldn’t stop them from forming on his lips while he walked on, thinking of the marbles in his pocket. He too wished for one small victory.

When he reached home by way of the rear pathways that took him off the main road, he spotted three different boys playing a game of marbles at the back of the third tenement building; the chawl stood at the far end of the slums behind his building. He didn’t know two boys there, but had played with the third boy before: Pankaj, a small, chubby boy with short hair. Pankaj came from the adjacent tenement building that overlooked the garbage piles. He’d lost the color of his dark skin in patched areas around his face, and on his fingers, arms, and on the back of his knees. He had large eyes and an eager smile that showed his willingness to play with anyone, as long as things didn’t go wrong.

“Are these your friends?” Fishhead asked Pankaj. “No, but they came here once,” Pankaj replied. “Shall I join you?” Fishhead said, approaching the group. Pankaj looked at the two boys as if to ask them. He did not open his mouth. “We’re in a game. Are you any good?” the older boy asked Fishhead, and he pushed some dirt with his right heel. This boy had an edge to him; he seemed rougher and taller. Fishhead shrugged and looked away. Then he spat on the ground twice, taking his time as he pushed his dark hair back after it fell across his forehead.

“Do you have any marbles?” the boy asked. “I have marbles,” Fishhead said. “I don’t see you with them.” “Here they are,” Fishhead said, fetching them from his pocket. “But this one, this one’s my striker. It goes with me everywhere.” He showed his yellow cat’s eye striker. “What are you going to do with two marbles then? Get lost, punk.” “I can play. I’m good,” Fishhead said. “Oh yeah, we’ll see about that,” the other boy said. “He’s good,” Pankaj replied, fidgeting. “Now I’m scared,” the taller boy said with a smirk. “Show us how good you are then. We’ll each put two marbles into the triangle and start a new game. What’s there to lose, ha ha.”

Fishhead faced his test, only this time it meant more because he’d confronted a challenge put up before him by boys he didn’t know from the area. He never thought about losing his marbles, only his name. He became light on his toes, eager to begin. The tomato and egg helped his focus and gave him back some strength. He didn’t smirk or respond to the boy’s laugh but kept a straight face, visualizing the triangle area and marbles, and the approach of his strike. “I’ll set it up,” Pankaj said, as the three of them removed their extra marbles to start the new game. He arranged the eight marbles inside a new triangle he’d drawn on the dirt after wiping out the old one. “Okay, you strike first, bigshot,” the taller boy said, raising his chin at Fishhead and putting his hands on his hips like a film star.

Fished nodded, but held back a smile. Too fond of the game, too skilled. He couldn’t lose, he wouldn’t allow himself to lose a single round. A champion on his poor street after all. He liked the sweet taste of success like the sweet smell of dirt, the dry dirt his feet kicked up in the air as he positioned himself low to the ground to take his shot. He went down on his haunches, with the large tenement building fifty feet behind him, its damp and molding exterior showing the effect of the monsoons. He tossed the cat’s eye marble striker into his mouth; his favorite marble. He put marbles in his mouth to clean them, because it made them easier to grip between his fingers. He did this whenever he played with the other boys; marbles in his mouth calmed his nerves and prepared him, but also because he did not care to speak unnecessarily, as the boys often did to distract his focus and aim. The sun pressed down like a spectator and Fishhead paid it no attention. He moved the marble in his mouth with his tongue and tasted it like candy. The marble knocked against his teeth and the sound echoed in the cave of his mouth, sending a sensation of wild anticipation through his body. And spit came up on his tongue as he focused on the hand-marked triangle on the ground more than three feet in front of him.

“What’s the delay, bigshot?” the taller boy asked, getting closer to Fishhead. “Got cold feet then or are you just acting?” Inside the triangle, eight marbles of different sizes stood like wordless soldiers, gathered near each other, shiny and colorful, and one beaten and cracked, but he wouldn’t want the beaten ones. Losers kept broken marbles. He didn’t know who put that one in, but he knew it did not belong to him. Fishhead set his eyes on the triangle, the size of a small ruled notebook, and he leaned forward between his knees, arms in front, hands in formation to strike, but not quite yet. He rolled the cat’s-eye marble in his tongue and pushed it out of his mouth; he turned the marble against his sleeve to dry it. He knew this one well, just the right feel and weight like a gumball. A too-big striker kept him from slinging it far enough through the triangle; a too-small striker did not have the weight to knock the others out of the space there. The marble striker might even break apart on contact. Fishhead placed his left thumb on the ground and held the marble against the tip of his outstretched middle finger with the other hand. He didn’t look up at the boys who watched him closely.

He leaned forward, low to the ground, and took aim, and the other boy standing across from him said, “Hope he misses. It’ll give us a chance.” Fishhead paused and gave the fellow a stare, but said nothing. The taller boy scraped the dirt with his heel and Pankaj swung his hand in the air behind him in nervous reaction. Fishhead ignored the distractions and lined up his shot, and then he pulled his right middle finger back as far as it would go with the yellow cat’s eye striker at the end of it. He released the striker, his finger pushing forward with a tight springing action. The marble cut a straight line through the air like a bullet then arced, and Fishhead smiled. Just like the sound of a MiG jet fighter close to his ears. Just like that. He enjoyed this power, this freedom, which the striker displayed as he released it. The cat’s-eye marble struck the first ball of glass near him in the triangle, and the force hit the other seven marbles, splitting the group and spreading the marbles beyond the triangle in a wide circle. His eyes lit up. Holy Mother of God! The smallest marble on the outside of the triangle flew to a distance of five feet and stopped in the dirt. Only one marble stayed inside the triangle, and it had chipped. The three boys sighed and swore and jumped back in astonishment, unable to touch the marbles. Rules of the game, you know. Rules.

“The bastard did it!” the taller boy snarled. “Yea, sister-fucker, you talked too soon. You talk big,” Fishhead said then spat, and he got up to collect his loot. “What did you call me?” The tall one asked. “Hey, what did you say?” “You heard what I said. But I won,” Fishhead said. “I won. I don’t think you want to play with me again.” He cleaned his cat’s eye striker and put it in his mouth. That should teach them a lesson. His body went hot inside, light like air filling emptiness in his stomach with life. Then he pushed aside the chipped marble in the triangle that he didn’t want, and Pankaj scooped it up immediately. Pankaj appeared disappointed in his loss, but smiled when he picked up the chipped marble and closed his fingers around it.

“Want to play another game then?” Fishhead asked. He didn’t worry about the brief exchange of words that followed his win. Boys argued and swore all the time, and he had received bad words and dished them out, just as he swore now. But these boys? Nothing but strangers to him, and he had not considered their moods or attitudes. They did not belong to his area. They did not belong here. “I told you he was good,” Pankaj said, stepping back from the others. He did not like unpleasant situations, and behaved like a weakling when arguments broke out between players.

Fishhead wiped the good marbles clean and stuffed all seven in his pocket while he stood over the empty triangle. “Always know your competition,” he said. He felt the weight of the marbles in his pocket; they’d tear through if he moved too quickly. He took care but hadn’t noticed the sudden movement behind him, and then the heavy foot that landed on his back, just above his right buttock.

“Ugh!” The sound in his throat broke like a brick underfoot, broke like a tricked brick cracking in the day’s intense heat. The boy’s kick surprised him. Fishhead fell forward and choked on his cat’s eye striker. He swallowed the marble hard and fast as his body plummeted. He turned his face to the right so he wouldn’t break his nose when he fell, and he met the earth with a thud and drone that smothered his heart and emptied him. He moaned, and blood rushed to his eyes, made them scream for hell. Waves of fury pulling him towards a barbaric sun. His attackers came for him, kicking wildly, kicking…those stabbing feet.

“Stop, please stop!” Pankaj cried, looking around for help. “What are you doing? What—?” They pushed him out of the way when he protested. The insult had taken the taller boy over the edge. Fishhead tried to turn on the ground, but the boy kicked him on the back of his folded knee, and then Fishhead felt the kick of the other boy, which landed on his right shoulder. They kicked him again a few times, while he lay there on his side shielding his face and head with his right arm. His left arm locked under his weight, turned away like that time when, at the age of eight, he fell while running into the dry gutter with little brother Kishore on his shoulder. He had twisted his left arm the other way then. The last kick landed in his gut and Fishhead cried out. His left ear and cheek now pressed to the ground. His ears and cheeks exploded with pain… pain, as if he’d eaten shards of glass, and his mouth went dry and coarse with dirt that coated his lips and entered his gums. The dirt smelled sweet, the bitterness of it.

The boys sprinted off in a hurry while Pankaj stood there, his feet stuck to the ground, and then he came around and stood before Fishhead. He smacked his left heel on the ground again and again restlessly, unable to accept what had just happened and overwhelmed by it. Minutes passed, then silence. In the quiet, flies buzzed around Fishhead. Somewhere, a cow mooed, the bell of a cycle went off, a woman called her child, and leaves rustled in a nearby bush under the weight of a lizard. Life buzzed around Fishhead. The sound of his own desperate breathing, and Pankaj’s footsteps.

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“Who are they?” Fishhead asked, hurting, his voice just above a whisper. He opened his reddened eyes. “Who are those bastards, you know them?” He tried to move but his body resisted. “I don’t know them, I swear,” Pankaj said, stepping back. “They’re not my friends. They just came here once before and we played, I swear.” Then he turned and walked away with his hands on his head. He hit his head repeatedly to show his regret as he stepped out of Fishhead’s sight. “Ma…Ma,” Fishhead moaned as he lay there. “They really got me, Ma.” The smell of frying pakoras wafting through the air caught his attention, and he shut his eyes. The kick to his gut hurt a lot, like a rancid temptation. He couldn’t think of food now, but food meant everything to him, and it calmed him as he began to imagine the source of the frying snacks; he loved the taste and texture of fried chickpea batter and onions that made pakoras a popular street food. The smell pinched his stomach more and made him ache deeply, the cat’s-eye striker now buried in there. Fishhead struggled to get to his feet, he struggled, and then he just lay there, slumped, his breath held inside an acre of time. He could see what the chickens saw, what the rooster and hen saw, and the fallen tomatoes, too. This world, always bigger and amazing from any place. He could go somewhere, he could. For now, he knew only here.

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Photographs provided courtesy of author.

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“One Small Victory” is excerpted from Ignatius Valentine Aloysius’s unpublished novel Fishhead. Republic of Want.


Ignatius Valentine Aloysius earned his M.F.A in Creative Writing from Northwestern University. He teaches at Northwestern and Harold Washington College, and is a graphic designer and lead guitarist for Reverend Ruin, a hard rock band. His writing has appeared in TriQuarterly, Newcity, the Chicago Tribune, and Third Coast Review, among others. His essay “The Ring” was re-enacted recently by Story Club South Side at Prosperity Sphere performance space in Bridgeport, and is forthcoming on The Extraordinary Project online. Ignatius was a recent interdisciplinary resident at Ragdale. He lives in Evanston, Illinois.  More from this author →