July-August 2009 | Fiction

Short Story Writing Contest: "Koa Means 'Crow'"

The winning open category short story.

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The crow almost hit her face, and she stifled a scream. Its inert body hung from the neem tree by twine tied around its legs. Her mouth had been open talking to Richie, and the bird’s charcoal-gray feathers nearly brushed her lip when she swung her head around. It was only eight in the morning, but the May heat of New Delhi pressed solid against her skin as they set out for the school-bus stop. Her stomach, after just black coffee, was churning, and a dead crow dangled four inches in front of her nose. She noticed with relief that it didn’t smell yet.

“Koa,” Richie said, to practice his Hindi. His chubby face beamed up at her. Richie loved being part of his big brother’s walk to the bus. Sharon’s younger son was 2 and knew only India. A skilled editor of the surroundings, he could ignore pig dung on the ground or the posture of an upside-down crow. “Koa,” Richie said again and pointed at the hanging bird.

Sharon’s thoughts centered on the carcass. What did it mean? The neat little knots at its ankles showed a great deal of purpose. The implications seemed sinister. A warning? Probably not directed at us, she told herself, but perhaps there was some new quarrel among the servants in her household, or in the landlord’s. Whatever the explanation, the dispute would land in her lap sooner or later. She felt pale and exposed under the bright sun.

What she calmly said to Richie was, “Good. Koa means crow; that’s right, Sweetie.” She forced a smile.

He was proud of his Hindi and knew the words for the pleasures of his small world. Koa was the bold, thieving crow, and tota was the small, bright-green parrot. Nimboo pane was his favorite drink, sweet, fizzy limeade, and he loved am, the golden mango whose juice ran all the way down to his elbows as he ate. Bili, the cat, elicited shrieks of delight, but Richie knew he mustn’t touch the strays on the street. India was home, his kingdom where servants stopped work to clap rhythm when he danced around the house. It was harder for her older son, Gavin; he was 7 and clearly remembered the life they left in the States a year ago. His litanies of loss were easily triggered by the odd flavor of rosewater ice cream or the faint odor of camphor in his breakfast cornflakes.

“Mo-om,” he said, making two syllables of the word. “What is that? It’s gross.”

“A crow, Gavin, it’s a dead crow.”

“Why is it there? Who hung it there?”

“I don’t know. Is it Christmas yet? Maybe time to decorate the tree?”

She immediately regretted the stupid joke. She was supposed to be the reliable adult in Gavin’s greatly changed life, and she had booted it again.

“Don’t worry, Honey. I’ll cut it down when Richie and I get home,” she said.

Life had traced a steep learning curve since their arrival. Jon was often assigned to news stories in other cities and countries, so she faced the challenges at home alone, and she felt she did so poorly. She groped time and again to find her way from what seemed apparent to what was actually happening around her, but often read situations the wrong way.

Case in point, she thought, days spent trying to get a dead cow removed from the alleyway behind their house. She had called the municipal number for Dead Animal Removal countless times, while a buzzing curtain of flies gradually covered the bedroom windows. Her requests, politely noted, were ignored until—finally—Jon got back from a trip and tracked down the neighborhood Congress-I Party fixer. The carcass disappeared that night; the flies, soon after.

Now, this crow had appeared. She was not spending days with a rotting carcass near the house again, not even a small one. It was coming down fast when she got home. The school bus finally arrived, and Gavin climbed aboard. The driver took off with a lurch just as the boy reached the top step.

Sharon watched the bus travel down Paschimi Marg until Gavin’s head disappeared into a seat, then she and Richie walked back to an intersection a block from their house. There was a low concrete platform where the two quiet backstreets crossed; Richie liked to stand on it and pretend to direct the car or two that eventually happened by. Smiling Indian drivers stopped and awaited his hand signal to proceed, then saluted him as they slowly passed.

At home, Vijay, the cook, had toast and eggs ready, so she left Richie at the breakfast table with him and got her nail scissors. She decided not to ask the cook about the crow; if it had to do with a household disagreement, it could wait. She wondered if anyone watched as she strode over to the neem tree and cut the body down with one snip, then lifted it by the threads and dropped it into a nearby garbage bin.

The next morning, she walked right into the same crow hung in the same place. By now, it smelled.

“Damn it!” she yelled, then left Gavin to hold Richie’s hand while she stormed back into the house for her scissors.

On the phone with Jon that night, her throat was tight with resentment. She yelled to make him hear her over the poor connection. “Wait,” she bellowed into the old-fashioned mouthpiece. “Kids asleep.”

She closed the children’s bedroom doors, then carried the phone as far from them as she could, stretching the cord to get out of the center hall and into the kitchen. The connection from Kabul crackled, and she could hear her words echo.

“I’m scared…cared. Somebody hung a dead crow out front …ont.”

Jon’s words disappeared at random, too.

“Another…cow?…name’s…kash…number…desk.”

“Shit, Jon. I can’t understand you.”

“…Puneet…removed.”

“When are you coming home?”

“sa…press conference…minister,” he gargled. “May…plane Thursday…port.”

“The whole yard will be hung with crows by then,” Sharon hissed into the phone.

Then, as it often did, the line died. A Delhi operator came on with a soprano cry, “Hanji? Hanji? Madame, you are finished?”

“Does it matter?” Sharon said and slammed the receiver back into its cradle.

She was furious with Jon for not being there and disheartened that she had given in to her anger again. Reporting on the Soviets in Afghanistan wasn’t a pleasure trip for him. She had meant to bring the conversation back to some connection; she had meant to tell him she loved him before they hung up.

By 10 o’clock, the house was dark, except for her bedroom and bath, and she was in the shower. The cool water calmed her, and she relaxed later as she read in bed. When a wandering cow mooed beneath the bedroom window and startled her, Sharon got up and closed the drapes, turned up the air conditioner a bit, and shut off the light.

There was no crow in the neem tree the next morning when they walked Gavin to the bus.

On the way home, Richie resisted when she tried to cut short his time directing traffic. “We’ve got to get going, Sweetie,” she explained. “Jagdish is taking us to Hanuman’s temple. Want to see the monkeys?”

He flashed a smile and scrambled down from the platform.

Back home, after breakfast, Sharon packed up juice and crackers for Richie and bananas for the temple monkeys. In spite of the heat, she put shoes and socks on herself and the toddler; they would leave their shoes at the temple entrance, and she didn’t want to walk barefoot.

Outside, any lingering cool from the night had burned off. There was no perceptible change in temperature as she walked through the hot exhaust from the house air conditioners. Richie stood near the garage and called the driver down from his card game in the servants’ quarters above it.

“Dag-deesh.”

“Coming, Richieji,” a lively voice answered from above, and a small, muscular man appeared on the second-floor balcony, then came quickly down the stairs, smiling all the while at Richie in the driveway.

“Are you ready to visit Lord Hanuman, Richie Baba?” he asked, as he took the child’s hand and led him to the car. They were pals. When the driver wasn’t interpreting for Jon, he guided Sharon and Richie through the temples and markets of Delhi.

“So, we go to the temple on the Jumna, Madame, correct?”

“That’s the plan,” she said. “Can we be back around noon?”

“No problem, Madame. We’ll be in time for Richieji’s lunch.”

It was Wednesday, and Vijay always cooked mutter paneer for lunch on Wednesdays. Richie loved his peas-and-cheese curry, and the cook took offense when the child missed the meal.

Jagdish pulled out of the driveway and drove through the quiet, dusty neighborhood. As he waited to turn the car onto the Ring Road, one of the beggars who regularly worked the intersection banged on the window near Sharon’s head. Her fingers were stubs, the effect of untreated leprosy. Early in their stay, the sudden thumps on the car window made Sharon jump, but she had come to expect them. She rolled down the glass and put in the woman’s cupped hands a rupee and an orange she had tucked into Richie’s diaper bag at the last minute. The beggar slipped them into a dirty canvas bag that hung from her shoulder, then lifted both hands to her forehead.

“Namaste,” she rasped.

Sharon touched her own forehead with both hands in response. She had asked Jagdish months before what the gesture meant, and he translated it, “I bow to God in you.” God was an everyday encounter in India, as likely to require acknowledgement in the noseless face of a leper as on the blue and white altar of the big temple in Kalkaji. Deities gazed down from shelf altars in homes and businesses, hung from the rearview mirrors or sat on dashboards in taxis, and ruled neighborhoods and crossroads from little, white temples that looked like wedding cakes. If you included every village favorite, people said, there were a million gods and goddesses in India. With elephant heads or monkey faces, pink or black or blue skin, they formed an impenetrable multitude for Sharon. But Indians deftly accessed the spiritual intents of incarnations and reincarnations that played out over eons.

The light changed, and Jagdish pulled the car onto the busy road where heavy traffic swallowed them up. A hugely overloaded truck, its sides painted with bright birds and flowers, passed on the right. Ahead, to the left, four pale-gray cattle, their shoulders topped by humps, pulled an open flatbed that carried a steel I-beam. And, as always in India, dozens of dowdy, white Ambassador cars filled most of the six lanes. The air outside was thick and dark with exhaust. Sharon settled back, grateful for the sealed, somewhat cooler interior of the car.

Soon, Richie, red-cheeked and filmed with sweat, was asleep in his car seat, lulled by the motion and warmth. Mile after mile of sun-baked compound walls and dusty acacia shrubs passed before she noticed a far-off glitter that might be the Jumna River.

“Are we almost there?” she asked.

“Maybe 10 or 15 minutes more, Madame,” the driver answered. “We go north to the Tibetan market to park, then walk to the river bank.”

“And the temple is peaceful?” she asked.

“Madame; you will be pleased to see it. It is so small and pretty.”

The shoving crowds, thick incense and din in the big Hanuman temple downtown had panicked Sharon, but Hanuman—monkey, warrior and god—was a favorite of the driver’s, and he was determined to find a temple that she would enjoy.

The god had recently appeared in the Ramayana on television. Like most of India, she and Richie watched a chapter of the epic every Sunday morning. They had followed King Ram, its hero, through many adventures in the north before he met Hanuman in Tamil Nadu.

Gavin didn’t watch the Sunday episodes with them. The live actors fell short of his stateside cartoon standards. He rolled his eyes and sighed repeatedly through half of the first installment, pronounced it a “fairy tale,” and left the room. But Richie loved it.

While the special effects were creaky—Hanuman in flight resembled Superman on the old TV show—the actors were talented mimes. The monkey general’s graceful capers, his pensive eyes and courtly voice created the illusion of a being both animal and human, but in a category all his own. It was definitely magical, Sharon thought; magical, yes, but not divine. Yet the most cosmopolitan Indians she met saw a god at work in the stories. This puzzled her. She understood what powers drew worshippers to other gods. Beautiful blue-skinned Krishna courted souls like a lover. Kali, her eyes bugged out above a necklace of human skulls, was sublimely terrifying. Durga, mounted on a tiger, drove away evil with righ- teous courage. But the transcendent force that drew devotion toward Hanuman’s gray muzzle eluded her.

Jagdish kept a postcard on their dashboard that Sharon often studied as they drove around Delhi. It pictured Hanuman in Ram’s embrace. The monkey’s right cheek was pressed to the king’s chest; his eyes rested half-closed above splayed nostrils. His long tail stood upright in a perky curlicue. Ram gazed down at Hanuman with eyes that shone with warmth and a bit of merriment. There was a feeling in the drawing that made her smile, but it was subtle, and she had no name for it.

As they pulled off the main road and headed toward the river on smaller streets, they left the crowd of autos behind. Waves of bougainvillea, high enough to shade the car, broke over stucco walls on either side of the narrow lanes. Richie woke up when they turned at last off pavement and entered a bumpy dirt road.

“Monkey?” he asked Sharon.

“Soon, Sweetie, soon,” she said and pushed damp hair off his forehead.

Several hundred feet farther on, Jagdish pulled the car as far as he could to the side of the road and stopped.

“We walk from here, Madame.”

They threaded their way through a labyrinth of stalls that formed the Tibetan market. As they walked, Sharon smelled a sequence of garlic and lamb cooking, wool sweaters reeking of lanolin in the sun, peppercorns, and then incense. In the Delhi heat, the broad cheeks of the Tibetan merchants were rosy, as if they’d just come in from the snow. She felt the river before she saw it. It came in a barely perceptible movement of air across her face.

Jagdish, walking ahead and holding Richie’s hand, turned a right corner out of the market, then disappeared on a path into the acacia shrubs. When she caught up with them on the shaded bank of the Jumna, he was removing his shoes and Richie’s at the gate to a wooden pier that crossed the river’s shallows. She took off her shoes and followed them out onto the little walkway that baked in the sun.

At its end was a small, whitewashed stucco building. They entered it and were wrapped in cool darkness. When her eyes adjusted, she saw that some light filtered in through fretwork high on the opposite wall. In that light, they crossed the floor, then opened and passed through a carved wooden door beneath the lattice and came out on a covered balcony that hung over the water of the wide, brown Jumna River.

An old man in white kurta pajama stood near the railing with his arm raised. As Sharon watched, a small, tan monkey with pale muttonchop whiskers swooped gracefully down and snatched a banana from the man’s upraised hand. Once back up in the rafters of the porch roof, the monkey chattered angrily, as if to criticize the way in which the banana had been offered or to complain about its size or ripeness. The old man laughed and dipped his head in apology.

Other monkeys drew near, and Sharon pulled the bananas from her bag. “Madame, let me hand them up. The monkeys can bite,” Jagdish said. He lifted Richie with his left arm to give him a better view, then raised the banana Sharon had put in his right hand. A monkey swung in low and snatched it.

“Monkeeeeee,” Richie squealed in excitement.

Jagdish lifted another banana.

“Lord Hanuman, this one is from Richieji,” he said. “Help him always to do the needful.” It, too, was quickly snatched away.

“More, more,” Richie ordered, laughing.

The bananas went up, one after another.

“This one…also from Richieji,” the driver said.

“This one from Madame.”

“This one from Sir.”

“This one from me.”

Richie was limp from laughing by the time all the fruit was eaten. His head rested on Jagdish’s shoulder, and the driver’s round, dark face shone with pleasure. He hugged the child.

“Lord Hanuman is pleased with you, Richieji. His belly is full. And now we must leave or your paneer will be dry, and Vijay will be angry with me.”

Richie stretched an arm toward the monkeys up in the rafters. They craned their necks and followed with bright eyes as Jagdish carried the child back through the wooden door. Past the threshold, Sharon took a deep breath that mingled the scent of bananas with the odor of damp, crumbling stucco from the walls. India in Richie’s company was a fairy tale, a place where monkeys could be generals and where grown-ups were devoted to them, where drivers obeyed and saluted 2-year-old traffic cops.

Bits of dust glinted in the shafts of sunlight that came through the lattice above her. A sensation both golden and grainy, like the light, climbed up through her chest as she exhaled. It brushed the back of her throat, then prickled in her nose and eyes, like tears threatening.

She wished she could share the day with Jon right now, tell him about the monkeys, Richie’s laughter and the brilliant grit that materialized when sunbeams shot through the dark inside the temple. She thought of the embrace pictured on her dashboard, rest and contentment on the monkey’s whiskered face.

Jagdish and Richie were almost to the opposite door, and she reluctantly crossed the shadowy room to catch up with them.

“Jagdish?”

“Yes, Madame?”

“What do you see when you look at Hanuman? What does he mean, in your heart?”

He stopped for a moment to consider.

“I see his faithfulness, Madame, his hard work and his cheerfulness. He shows me that I am in the right place and that I can do the right thing, and that makes me happy. And when I pray to him, I pray always to do my duty well, as he did.”

Said flat out like that, his powers were not impressive, Sharon thought. Good cheer, hard work and persistence sounded so run-of-the-mill. But they might go a long way here, where none of her days ended without a bit of bedlam or an opportunity for gracelessness.

“Do the needful” was the Indian way of saying it. But before she could do that, she realized, she had to accept that she was in the right place after all.

Back at the car, she strapped Richie into his seat, then turned to Jagdish. She felt the noon sun on her neck as she considered what the right thing to do was. She decided it was to speak, not to wait in silence for the problem to go away.

“Why would someone hang a dead crow outside the house?” she asked him.

“Do you mean the one that was in our neem tree, Madame?”

She nodded.

“Satish did that. He meant no harm.”

“But why?” she repeated.

“There is a nest with baby crows above where he sits to guard our gate, so the crow parents get nervous when he is there and attack him. Out in the country, where Satish is from, they say the dead crow will keep the others away.”

It was just koa after all, as Richie had said, a harmless dead bird, so much less than her fears. She would tell Jon tonight on the phone, if the connection lasted, and he would laugh at her, but she would tell the story on herself anyway. The laughter would be her gift to him.

Author Bio

In India, “you can’t spit without hitting something worth writing about,” says Lynn Litterine, whose three-year stint in New Delhi in the late 1980s with two young children and her foreign correspondent husband served as the backdrop for her winning short story. The multilayered Koa is about more than the occasional trials of expatriate life. Part of the inspiration for the story was drawn from the haunting image of the Hindu god Ram embracing Hanuman, the monkey/warrior god, which Litterine first glimpsed on a postcard in a Delhi taxi. “Their affect in the embrace, especially their relaxed acceptance of each other, stayed with me. Before I left the country, a friend gave me a similar postcard. It hangs in my kitchen to this day, still in its first cheap frame. I smile every time I notice it.”

Litterine has worked as a journalist and editor, and has taught for several years in the Professional Writing Program at the University of Maryland in College Park. She holds a master’s degree in creative writing from Temple University. Litterine is originally from New Jersey; this is her second stint living in the Washington, D.C., area. She and her family moved here from Philadelphia in 1999 when her husband, Marc Kaufman, accepted a job as a reporter at The Washington Post.

Litterine first wrote this story about 10 years ago. She decided to rework it as part of a pact she made with her younger son, who had recently graduated from college. She would submit Koa to the short story contest, and he would keep his spirits up while settling into a new city, looking for work and applying to veterinary school. It worked out well: Her son will attend the University of Pennsylvania veterinary school in the fall, and Litterine learned she won first place—on her birthday.

Judge’s Comments:

“Evocative and lush, capturing in a few bold strokes the challenges of living in another country while trying to raise a young child.”