– by Anjali Vaidya –
Winner of the 2020 Pen Parentis Writing Fellowship for New Parents
Two children picked their way down the curve of a beach, in the clear air that follows a storm. The cyclone had strewn junk across their path: driftwood and beer bottles, coloured plastic and seaweed clumps. The children clambered across fallen coconut trees. They waded rivulets, rain water on its way back into the sea. The children had walked a long way since morning without encountering another human voice.
The boy stopped, and pointed. “D’you see that?” he asked softly.
The girl, Tara, paused with narrowed eyes.
“You mean that bird?” she asked. A white egret had just landed at the water’s edge.
“It wasn’t a bird, just a moment ago.”
Tara looked again, as the bird nosed its feathers. “It’s just an egret, Tesla. What’d you think it was?”
Tara resumed walking, stepping across the skeleton of a sea creature. She was trying, very hard, not to think beyond the present moment. She was trying to lose her thoughts in the rhythm of walking.
“I thought I saw an old man,” said Tesla. “Dressed all in white.”
Tara glanced up at the egret again, black legs planted in the sand, and for a moment she saw it too. A man in white cloths that billowed in the wind.
“Tesla, we just gotta keep walking,” said Tara. “We need to find a place to rest.”
“You know who I think that was?” asked Tesla. His voice had slowed to a storyteller’s cadence, and Tara couldn’t help but pause, and glance back.
“Who?” she asked.
“The King,” he said. “From Papa’s story.”
“I never heard Papa tell a story ’bout a King.”
That’s ’cause you don’t listen, Tara. You gotta pay attention,” said Tesla, and Tara smiled. She slowed her pace.
“Ok, tell me the story,” she said.
“Once upon a time,” began Tesla, “there was a King, who was patient and wise. But he’d never been tested. And it’s easy to be a good King when you’ve never had real problems.”
Tara had grown very quiet. She sidestepped tree branches and other less identifiable things; a section of wall, the door of a car.
“For many years, the King ruled in peace. But one day he learned that a great threat was approaching. A storm was going to wash his kingdom into the sea.”
“That’s not the story,” interrupted Tara. “Papa said it was an invading army.”
“I’m the storyteller,” asserted Tesla. “I get to say what happens. Anyway, I thought you didn’t remember?”
“Just tell the story.”
“So there’s a storm approaching, and the King goes to the holy men, and asks them what to do. They say to make a sacrifice, so he slaughters chickens and goats and has a feast for his subjects. After that they love him even more than they already did.”
Tara looked out at the ocean, its absolute calm. Above, not a trace of cloud.
“But clouds start gathering, and the King seeks out the holy men again. He says, ‘I made all the right sacrifices. Why is the storm still coming?’”
“And they say, you have to sacrifice something of great value to you.”
“So the King takes all his gold and silver to the temple. But the storm hits the coast. People are dying.”
Tara paused, disentangled a plastic doll from the wreck on the beach, looked at it under the sun.
“He goes back and finds the holiest of holy men, and the King says, ‘I’ve given everything I had. What more can the gods want?’”
“And the holiest of holy men, he says, ‘You have to give something you can’t live without.’”
“The King doesn’t know what to do. Finally he’s in a boat fleeing the city, and sees a child caught in the undertow. Without a thought, the King jumps in and gets the child to safety, but then he’s pulled under. The King dies.
“And just like that, the rain stops. The wind breaks.”
Tara had stopped walking. She sat in the sand. She wasn’t sure how to take another step.
“The gods were happy with the King’s sacrifice. So they brought him back to life, but changed. He could live forever as a bird, guarding the shores of his beloved land.”
Tara took a deep breath, seated on the sand. “’S not how Papa told that story,” she said.
The two children watched the waves come in and out, each time depositing more debris onto the darkened sands.
“I guess I make the stories now.”
About the Pen Parentis Writing Fellowship
The Pen Parentis Writing Fellowship for New Parents annually honors a talented writer who is the parent of at least one child under 10 years old. This year’s fellow will receive $1000 to further their writing career, a year of mentorship, and will be offered the opportunity to read their winning story at the Pen Parentis Literary Salon in New York City on Tuesday, November 12, 2019. Their winning story will also be published in Dreamers Creative Writing Magazine (both online and in print) as well as included in the annual Dreamers Writing Anthology.
This year, submissions called for a new, never-published fiction story—any genre, on any subject—of up to 750 words. We change word count each year because the main goal of this Fellowship is to keep parents working—motivating all writers to continue to create new high-quality creative writing at the very busiest time of the parenting journey.
Pen Parentis is a 501c3 literary nonprofit that has spent the last ten years providing resources to writers to help them stay on creative track after starting a family.
About the Author – Anjali Vaidya
Anjali Vaidya is a writer currently based in San Diego, California, where she lives with her husband and two year old daughter. Her nonfiction has been published in venues such as Orion Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Boom California, Public Books, Dissent Magazine, The Wire and Khabar Magazine. She also has a children’s book on the water cycle out with Pratham Books (India), which doesn’t include enough dogs or gorillas to suit her daughter’s taste, but hopefully she’ll have fun with it one day. Her website is https://anjali-vaidya.com and she is on Twitter @anjalipvaidya
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