How I Taught My Grandmother To Read

A heart-warming story by Sudha Murthy.

When I was a girl of about twelve, I used to stay in a village in north Karnataka with my grandparents. Those days, the transport system was not very good, so we used to get the morning paper only in the afternoon. The weekly magazine used to come one day late. All of us would wait eagerly for the bus, which used to come with the papers, weekly magazines and the post.

At that time, Triveni was a very popular writer in the Kannada language. She was a wonderful writer. Her style was easy to read and very convincing. Her stories usually dealt with complex psychological problems in the lives of ordinary people and were always very interesting. Unfortunately for Kannada literature, she died very young. Even now, after forty years, people continue to appreciate her novels.

One of her novels, called Kashi Yatre, was appearing as a serial in the Kannada weekly Karmaveera then. It is the story of an old lady and her ardent desire to go to Kashi or Varanasi. Most Hindus believe that going to Kashi and worshipping Lord Vishweshwara is the ultimate punya. This old lady also believed in this, and her struggle to go there was described in that novel. In the story, there was also a young orphan girl who falls in love but there was no money for the wedding. In the end, the old lady gives away all her savings without going to Kashi. She says, ‘The happiness of this orphan girl is more important than worshipping Lord Vishweshwara at Kashi.’

My grandmother, Krishtakka, never went to school so she could not read. Every Wednesday, the magazine would come and I would read the next episode of this story to her. During that time, she would forget all her work and listen with the greatest concentration. Later, she could repeat the entire text by heart. My grandmother too never went to Kashi, and she identified herself with the novel’s protagonist. So more than anybody else she was the one most interested in knowing what happened next in the story and used to insist that I read the serial out to her.

After hearing what happened next in Kashi Yatre, she would join her friends at the temple courtyard where we children would also gather to play hide and seek. She would discuss the latest episode with her friends. At that time, I never understood why there was so much of debate about the story.

Once I went for a wedding with my cousins to the neighbouring village. In those days, a wedding was a great event. We children enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. We would eat and play endlessly, savouring the freedom because all the elders were busy. I went for a couple of days but ended up staying there for a week.

When I came back to my village, I saw my grandmother in tears. I was surprised, for I had never seen her cry even in the most difficult situations. What had happened? I was worried.

‘Avva, is everything all right? Are you ok?’

I used to call her Avva, which means mother in the Kannada spoken in north Karnataka.

She nodded but did not reply. I did not understand and forgot about it. In the night, after dinner, we were sleeping in the open terrace of the house. It was a summer night and there was a full moon. Avva came and sat next to me. Her affectionate hands touched my forehead. I realized she wanted to speak. I asked her, ‘What is the matter?’

‘When I was a young girl I lost my mother. There was nobody to look after and guide me. My father was a busy man and got married again. In those days people never considered education essential for girls, so I never went to school. I got married very young and had children. I became very busy. Later I had grandchildren and always felt so much happiness in cooking and feeding all of you. At times I used to regret not going to school, so I made sure that my children and grandchildren studied well …’

I could not understand why my sixty-two-year-old grandmother was telling me, a twelve-year-old, the story of her life in the middle of the night. But I knew I loved her immensely and there had to be some reason why she was talking to me. I looked at her face. It was unhappy and her eyes were filled with tears. She was a goodlooking lady who was usually always smiling. Even today, I cannot forget the worried expression on her face. I leaned forward and held her hand.

‘Avva, don’t cry. What is the matter? Can I help you in any way?’

‘Yes, I need your help. You know when you were away, Karmaveera came as usual. I opened the magazine. I saw the picture that accompanies the story of Kashi Yatre and I could not understand anything that was written. Many times, I rubbed my hands over the pages wishing they could understand what was written. But I knew it was not possible. If only I was educated enough. I waited eagerly for you to return. I felt you would come early and read for me. I even thought of going to the village and asking you to read for me. I could have asked somebody in this village but I was too embarrassed to do so. I felt so very dependent and helpless. We are well-off, but what use is money when I cannot be independent?’

I did not know what to answer. Avva continued.

‘I have decided I want to learn the Kannada alphabet from tomorrow onwards. I will work very hard. I will keep Saraswati Pooja day during Dassara as the deadline. That day I should be able to read a novel on my own. I want to be independent.’ 17. I saw the determination on her face. Yet I laughed at her.

‘Avva, at this age of sixty-two you want to learn the alphabet? All your hair is grey, your hands are wrinkled, you wear spectacles and you work so much in the kitchen…’

Childishly I made fun of the old lady. But she just smiled.

‘For a good cause if you are determined, you can overcome any obstacle. I will work harder than anybody but I will do it. For learning there is no age bar.’

The next day onwards, I started my tuition. Avva was a wonderful student. The amount of homework she did was amazing. She would read, repeat, write and recite. I was her only teacher and she was my first student. Little did I know then that one day I would become a teacher in Computer Science and teach hundreds of students.

The Dassara festival came as usual. Secretly I bought Kashi Yatre which had been published as a novel by that time. My grandmother called me to the pooja place and made me sit down on a stool. She gave me a gift of a frock material. Then she did something unusual. She bent down and touched my feet. I was surprised and taken aback. Elders never touch the feet of youngsters. We have always touched the feet of God, elders and teachers. We consider that as a mark of respect. It is a great tradition but today the reverse had happened. It was not correct.

She said, “I am touching the feet of a teacher, not my granddaughter; a teacher who taught me so well, with so much of affection that I can read any novel confidently in such a short period. Now I am independent. It is my duty to respect a teacher. Is it not written in our scriptures that a teacher should be respected, irrespective of the gender and age?’

I did return namaskara to her by touching her feet and gave my gift to my first student. She opened it and read immediately the title Kashi Yatre by Triveni and the publisher’s name.

I knew then that my student had passed with flying colours.

The Cop And The Anthem

On his bench in Madison Square Soapy moved uneasily. When wild geese honk high of nights, and when women without sealskin coats grow kind to their husbands, and when Soapy moves uneasily on his bench in the park, you may know that winter is near at hand.

A dead leaf fell in Soapy’s lap. That was Jack Frost’s card. Jack is kind to the regular denizens of Madison Square, and gives fair warning of his annual call. At the corners of four streets he hands his pasteboard to the North Wind, footman of the mansion of All Outdoors, so that the inhabitants thereof may make ready.

Soapy’s mind became cognisant of the fact that the time had come for him to resolve himself into a singular Committee of Ways and Means to provide against the coming rigour. And therefore he moved uneasily on his bench.

The hibernatorial ambitions of Soapy were not of the highest. In them there were no considerations of Mediterranean cruises, of soporific Southern skies drifting in the Vesuvian Bay. Three months on the Island was what his soul craved. Three months of assured board and bed and congenial company, safe from Boreas and bluecoats, seemed to Soapy the essence of things desirable.

For years the hospitable Blackwell’s had been his winter quarters. Just as his more fortunate fellow New Yorkers had bought their tickets to Palm Beach and the Riviera each winter, so Soapy had made his humble arrangements for his annual hegira to the Island. And now the time was come. On the previous night three Sabbath newspapers, distributed beneath his coat, about his ankles and over his lap, had failed to repulse the cold as he slept on his bench near the spurting fountain in the ancient square. So the Island loomed big and timely in Soapy’s mind. He scorned the provisions made in the name of charity for the city’s dependents. In Soapy’s opinion the Law was more benign than Philanthropy. There was an endless round of institutions, municipal and eleemosynary, on which he might set out and receive lodging and food accordant with the simple life. But to one of Soapy’s proud spirit the gifts of charity are encumbered. If not in coin you must pay in humiliation of spirit for every benefit received at the hands of philanthropy. As Caesar had his Brutus, every bed of charity must have its toll of a bath, every loaf of bread its compensation of a private and personal inquisition. Wherefore it is better to be a guest of the law, which though conducted by rules, does not meddle unduly with a gentleman’s private affairs.

Soapy, having decided to go to the Island, at once set about accomplishing his desire. There were many easy ways of doing this. The pleasantest was to dine luxuriously at some expensive restaurant; and then, after declaring insolvency, be handed over quietly and without uproar to a policeman. An accommodating magistrate would do the rest.

Soapy left his bench and strolled out of the square and across the level sea of asphalt, where Broadway and Fifth Avenue flow together. Up Broadway he turned, and halted at a glittering cafe, where are gathered together nightly the choicest products of the grape, the silkworm and the protoplasm.

Soapy had confidence in himself from the lowest button of his vest upward. He was shaven, and his coat was decent and his neat black, ready-tied four-in-hand had been presented to him by a lady missionary on Thanksgiving Day. If he could reach a table in the restaurant unsuspected success would be his. The portion of him that would show above the table would raise no doubt in the waiter’s mind. A roasted mallard duck, thought Soapy, would be about the thing–with a bottle of Chablis, and then Camembert, a demi-tasse and a cigar. One dollar for the cigar would be enough. The total would not be so high as to call forth any supreme manifestation of revenge from the cafe management; and yet the meat would leave him filled and happy for the journey to his winter refuge.

But as Soapy set foot inside the restaurant door the head waiter’s eye fell upon his frayed trousers and decadent shoes. Strong and ready hands turned him about and conveyed him in silence and haste to the sidewalk and averted the ignoble fate of the menaced mallard.

Soapy turned off Broadway. It seemed that his route to the coveted island was not to be an epicurean one. Some other way of entering limbo must be thought of.

At a corner of Sixth Avenue electric lights and cunningly displayed wares behind plate-glass made a shop window conspicuous. Soapy took a cobblestone and dashed it through the glass. People came running around the corner, a policeman in the lead. Soapy stood still, with his hands in his pockets, and smiled at the sight of brass buttons.

“Where’s the man that done that?” inquired the officer excitedly.

“Don’t you figure out that I might have had something to do with it?” said Soapy, not without sarcasm, but friendly, as one greets good fortune.

The policeman’s mind refused to accept Soapy even as a clue. Men who smash windows do not remain to parley with the law’s minions. They take to their heels. The policeman saw a man half way down the block running to catch a car. With drawn club he joined in the pursuit. Soapy, with disgust in his heart, loafed along, twice unsuccessful.

On the opposite side of the street was a restaurant of no great pretensions. It catered to large appetites and modest purses. Its crockery and atmosphere were thick; its soup and napery thin. Into this place Soapy took his accusive shoes and telltale trousers without challenge. At a table he sat and consumed beefsteak, flapjacks, doughnuts and pie. And then to the waiter be betrayed the fact that the minutest coin and himself were strangers.

“Now, get busy and call a cop,” said Soapy. “And don’t keep a gentleman waiting.”

“No cop for youse,” said the waiter, with a voice like butter cakes and an eye like the cherry in a Manhattan cocktail. “Hey, Con!”

Neatly upon his left ear on the callous pavement two waiters pitched Soapy. He arose, joint by joint, as a carpenter’s rule opens, and beat the dust from his clothes. Arrest seemed but a rosy dream. The Island seemed very far away. A policeman who stood before a drug store two doors away laughed and walked down the street.

Five blocks Soapy travelled before his courage permitted him to woo capture again. This time the opportunity presented what he fatuously termed to himself a “cinch.” A young woman of a modest and pleasing guise was standing before a show window gazing with sprightly interest at its display of shaving mugs and inkstands, and two yards from the window a large policeman of severe demeanour leaned against a water plug.

It was Soapy’s design to assume the role of the despicable and execrated “masher.” The refined and elegant appearance of his victim and the contiguity of the conscientious cop encouraged him to believe that he would soon feel the pleasant official clutch upon his arm that would insure his winter quarters on the right little, tight little isle.

Soapy straightened the lady missionary’s readymade tie, dragged his shrinking cuffs into the open, set his hat at a killing cant and sidled toward the young woman. He made eyes at her, was taken with sudden coughs and “hems,” smiled, smirked and went brazenly through the impudent and contemptible litany of the “masher.” With half an eye Soapy saw that the policeman was watching him fixedly. The young woman moved away a few steps, and again bestowed her absorbed attention upon the shaving mugs. Soapy followed, boldly stepping to her side, raised his hat and said:

“Ah there, Bedelia! Don’t you want to come and play in my yard?”

The policeman was still looking. The persecuted young woman had but to beckon a finger and Soapy would be practically en route for his insular haven. Already he imagined he could feel the cozy warmth of the station-house. The young woman faced him and, stretching out a hand, caught Soapy’s coat sleeve.

Sure, Mike,” she said joyfully, “if you’ll blow me to a pail of suds. I’d have spoke to you sooner, but the cop was watching.”

With the young woman playing the clinging ivy to his oak Soapy walked past the policeman overcome with gloom. He seemed doomed to liberty.

At the next corner he shook off his companion and ran. He halted in the district where by night are found the lightest streets, hearts, vows and librettos.

Women in furs and men in greatcoats moved gaily in the wintry air. A sudden fear seized Soapy that some dreadful enchantment had rendered him immune to arrest. The thought brought a little of panic upon it, and when he came upon another policeman lounging grandly in front of a transplendent theatre he caught at the immediate straw of “disorderly conduct.”

On the sidewalk Soapy began to yell drunken gibberish at the top of his harsh voice. He danced, howled, raved and otherwise disturbed the welkin.

The policeman twirled his club, turned his back to Soapy and remarked to a citizen.

“‘Tis one of them Yale lads celebratin’ the goose egg they give to the Hartford College. Noisy; but no harm. We’ve instructions to lave them be.”

Disconsolate, Soapy ceased his unavailing racket. Would never a policeman lay hands on him? In his fancy the Island seemed an unattainable Arcadia. He buttoned his thin coat against the chilling wind.

In a cigar store he saw a well-dressed man lighting a cigar at a swinging light. His silk umbrella he had set by the door on entering. Soapy stepped inside, secured the umbrella and sauntered off with it slowly. The man at the cigar light followed hastily.

“My umbrella,” he said, sternly.

“Oh, is it?” sneered Soapy, adding insult to petit larceny. “Well, why don’t you call a policeman? I took it. Your umbrella! Why don’t you call a cop? There stands one on the corner.”

The umbrella owner slowed his steps. Soapy did likewise, with a presentiment that luck would again run against him. The policeman looked at the two curiously.

“Of course,” said the umbrella man–“that is–well, you know how these mistakes occur–I–if it’s your umbrella I hope you’ll excuse me–I picked it up this morning in a restaurant–If you recognise it as yours, why–I hope you’ll–”

“Of course it’s mine,” said Soapy, viciously.

The ex-umbrella man retreated. The policeman hurried to assist a tall blonde in an opera cloak across the street in front of a street car that was approaching two blocks away.

Soapy walked eastward through a street damaged by improvements. He hurled the umbrella wrathfully into an excavation. He muttered against the men who wear helmets and carry clubs. Because he wanted to fall into their clutches, they seemed to regard him as a king who could do no wrong.

At length Soapy reached one of the avenues to the east where the glitter and turmoil was but faint. He set his face down this toward Madison Square, for the homing instinct survives even when the home is a park bench.

But on an unusually quiet corner Soapy came to a standstill. Here was an old church, quaint and rambling and gabled. Through one violet-stained window a soft light glowed, where, no doubt, the organist loitered over the keys, making sure of his mastery of the coming Sabbath anthem. For there drifted out to Soapy’s ears sweet music that caught and held him transfixed against the convolutions of the iron fence.

The moon was above, lustrous and serene; vehicles and pedestrians were few; sparrows twittered sleepily in the eaves–for a little while the scene might have been a country churchyard. And the anthem that the organist played cemented Soapy to the iron fence, for he had known it well in the days when his life contained such things as mothers and roses and ambitions and friends and immaculate thoughts and collars.

The conjunction of Soapy’s receptive state of mind and the influences about the old church wrought a sudden and wonderful change in his soul. He viewed with swift horror the pit into which he had tumbled, the degraded days, unworthy desires, dead hopes, wrecked faculties and base motives that made up his existence.

And also in a moment his heart responded thrillingly to this novel mood. An instantaneous and strong impulse moved him to battle with his desperate fate. He would pull himself out of the mire; he would make a man of himself again; he would conquer the evil that had taken possession of him. There was time; he was comparatively young yet; he would resurrect his old eager ambitions and pursue them without faltering. Those solemn but sweet organ notes had set up a revolution in him. To-morrow he would go into the roaring downtown district and find work. A fur importer had once offered him a place as driver. He would find him to-morrow and ask for the position. He would be somebody in the world. He would–

Soapy felt a hand laid on his arm. He looked quickly around into the broad face of a policeman.

“What are you doin’ here?” asked the officer.

“Nothin’,” said Soapy.

“Then come along,” said the policeman.

“Three months on the Island,” said the Magistrate in the Police Court the next morning.

– O. Henry


The Last Leaf

The Last Leaf

The Last Leaf

In a little district west of Washington Square the streets have run crazy and broken themselves into small strips called “places.” These “places” make strange angles and curves. One Street crosses itself a time or two. An artist once discovered a valuable possibility in this street. Suppose a collector with a bill for paints, paper and canvas should, in traversing this route, suddenly meet himself coming back, without a cent having been paid on account!

So, to quaint old Greenwich Village the art people soon came prowling, hunting for north windows and eighteenth-century gables and Dutch attics and low rents. Then they imported some pewter mugs and a chafing dish or two from Sixth Avenue, and became a “colony.”

At the top of a squatty, three-story brick Sue and Johnsy had their studio. “Johnsy” was familiar for Joanna. One was from Maine; the other from California. They had met at the table d’hôte of an Eighth Street “Delmonico’s,” and found their tastes in art, chicory salad and bishop sleeves so congenial that the joint studio resulted.

That was in May. In November a cold, unseen stranger, whom the doctors called Pneumonia, stalked about the colony, touching one here and there with his icy fingers. Over on the east side this ravager strode boldly, smiting his victims by scores, but his feet trod slowly through the maze of the narrow and moss-grown “places.”

Mr. Pneumonia was not what you would call a chivalric old gentleman. A mite of a little woman with blood thinned by California zephyrs was hardly fair game for the red-fisted, short-breathed old duffer. But Johnsy he smote; and she lay, scarcely moving, on her painted iron bedstead, looking through the small Dutch window-panes at the blank side of the next brick house.

One morning the busy doctor invited Sue into the hallway with a shaggy, gray eyebrow.

“She has one chance in – let us say, ten,” he said, as he shook down the mercury in his clinical thermometer. ” And that chance is for her to want to live. This way people have of lining-u on the side of the undertaker makes the entire pharmacopoeia look silly. Your little lady has made up her mind that she’s not going to get well. Has she anything on her mind?”

“She – she wanted to paint the Bay of Naples some day.” said Sue.

“Paint? – bosh! Has she anything on her mind worth thinking twice – a man for instance?”

“A man?” said Sue, with a jew’s-harp twang in her voice. “Is a man worth – but, no, doctor; there is nothing of the kind.”

“Well, it is the weakness, then,” said the doctor. “I will do all that science, so far as it may filter through my efforts, can accomplish. But whenever my patient begins to count the carriages in her funeral procession I subtract 50 per cent from the curative power of medicines. If you will get her to ask one question about the new winter styles in cloak sleeves I will promise you a one-in-five chance for her, instead of one in ten.”

After the doctor had gone Sue went into the workroom and cried a Japanese napkin to a pulp. Then she swaggered into Johnsy’s room with her drawing board, whistling ragtime.

Johnsy lay, scarcely making a ripple under the bedclothes, with her face toward the window. Sue stopped whistling, thinking she was asleep.

She arranged her board and began a pen-and-ink drawing to illustrate a magazine story. Young artists must pave their way to Art by drawing pictures for magazine stories that young authors write to pave their way to Literature.

As Sue was sketching a pair of elegant horseshow riding trousers and a monocle of the figure of the hero, an Idaho cowboy, she heard a low sound, several times repeated. She went quickly to the bedside.

Johnsy’s eyes were open wide. She was looking out the window and counting – counting backward.

“Twelve,” she said, and little later “eleven”; and then “ten,” and “nine”; and then “eight” and “seven”, almost together.

Sue look solicitously out of the window. What was there to count? There was only a bare, dreary yard to be seen, and the blank side of the brick house twenty feet away. An old, old ivy vine, gnarled and decayed at the roots, climbed half way up the brick wall. The cold breath of autumn had stricken its leaves from the vine until its skeleton branches clung, almost bare, to the crumbling bricks.

“What is it, dear?” asked Sue.

“Six,” said Johnsy, in almost a whisper. “They’re falling faster now. Three days ago there were almost a hundred. It made my head ache to count them. But now it’s easy. There goes another one. There are only five left now.”

“Five what, dear? Tell your Sudie.”

“Leaves. On the ivy vine. When the last one falls I must go, too. I’ve known that for three days. Didn’t the doctor tell you?”

“Oh, I never heard of such nonsense,” complained Sue, with magnificent scorn. “What have old ivy leaves to do with your getting well? And you used to love that vine so, you naughty girl. Don’t be a goosey. Why, the doctor told me this morning that your chances for getting well real soon were – let’s see exactly what he said – he said the chances were ten to one! Why, that’s almost as good a chance as we have in New York when we ride on the street cars or walk past a new building. Try to take some broth now, and let Sudie go back to her drawing, so she can sell the editor man with it, and buy port wine for her sick child, and pork chops for her greedy self.”

“You needn’t get any more wine,” said Johnsy, keeping her eyes fixed out the window. “There goes another. No, I don’t want any broth. That leaves just four. I want to see the last one fall before it gets dark. Then I’ll go, too.”

“Johnsy, dear,” said Sue, bending over her, “will you promise me to keep your eyes closed, and not look out the window until I am done working? I must hand those drawings in by to-morrow. I need the light, or I would draw the shade down.”

“Couldn’t you draw in the other room?” asked Johnsy, coldly.

“I’d rather be here by you,” said Sue. “Beside, I don’t want you to keep looking at those silly ivy leaves.”

“Tell me as soon as you have finished,” said Johnsy, closing her eyes, and lying white and still as fallen statue, “because I want to see the last one fall. I’m tired of waiting. I’m tired of thinking. I want to turn loose my hold on everything, and go sailing down, down, just like one of those poor, tired leaves.”

“Try to sleep,” said Sue. “I must call Behrman up to be my model for the old hermit miner. I’ll not be gone a minute. Don’t try to move ’til I come back.”

Old Behrman was a painter who lived on the ground floor beneath them. He was past sixty and had a Michael Angelo’s Moses beard curling down from the head of a satyr along with the body of an imp. Behrman was a failure in art. Forty years he had wielded the brush without getting near enough to touch the hem of his Mistress’s robe. He had been always about to paint a masterpiece, but had never yet begun it. For several years he had painted nothing except now and then a daub in the line of commerce or advertising. He earned a little by serving as a model to those young artists in the colony who could not pay the price of a professional. He drank gin to excess, and still talked of his coming masterpiece. For the rest he was a fierce little old man, who scoffed terribly at softness in any one, and who regarded himself as especial mastiff-in-waiting to protect the two young artists in the studio above.

Sue found Behrman smelling strongly of juniper berries in his dimly lighted den below. In one corner was a blank canvas on an easel that had been waiting there for twenty-five years to receive the first line of the masterpiece. She told him of Johnsy’s fancy, and how she feared she would, indeed, light and fragile as a leaf herself, float away, when her slight hold upon the world grew weaker.

Old Behrman, with his red eyes plainly streaming, shouted his contempt and derision for such idiotic imaginings.

“Vass!” he cried. “Is dere people in de world mit der foolishness to die because leafs dey drop off from a confounded vine? I haf not heard of such a thing. No, I will not bose as a model for your fool hermit-dunderhead. Vy do you allow dot silly pusiness to come in der brain of her? Ach, dot poor leetle Miss Yohnsy.”

“She is very ill and weak,” said Sue, “and the fever has left her mind morbid and full of strange fancies. Very well, Mr. Behrman, if you do not care to pose for me, you needn’t. But I think you are a horrid old – old flibbertigibbet.”

“You are just like a woman!” yelled Behrman. “Who said I will not bose? Go on. I come mit you. For half an hour I haf peen trying to say dot I am ready to bose. Gott! dis is not any blace in which one so goot as Miss Yohnsy shall lie sick. Some day I vill baint a masterpiece, and ve shall all go away. Gott! yes.”

Johnsy was sleeping when they went upstairs. Sue pulled the shade down to the window-sill, and motioned Behrman into the other room. In there they peered out the window fearfully at the ivy vine. Then they looked at each other for a moment without speaking. A persistent, cold rain was falling, mingled with snow. Behrman, in his old blue shirt, took his seat as the hermit miner on an upturned kettle for a rock.

When Sue awoke from an hour’s sleep the next morning she found Johnsy with dull, wide-open eyes staring at the drawn green shade.

“Pull it up; I want to see,” she ordered, in a whisper.

Wearily Sue obeyed.

But, lo! after the beating rain and fierce gusts of wind that had endured through the livelong night, there yet stood out against the brick wall one ivy leaf. It was the last one on the vine. Still dark green near its stem, with its serrated edges tinted with the yellow of dissolution and decay, it hung bravely from the branch some twenty feet above the ground.

“It is the last one,” said Johnsy. “I thought it would surely fall during the night. I heard the wind. It will fall to-day, and I shall die at the same time.”

“Dear, dear!” said Sue, leaning her worn face down to the pillow, “think of me, if you won’t think of yourself. What would I do?”

But Johnsy did not answer. The lonesomest thing in all the world is a soul when it is making ready to go on its mysterious, far journey. The fancy seemed to possess her more strongly as one by one the ties that bound her to friendship and to earth were loosed.

The day wore away, and even through the twilight they could see the lone ivy leaf clinging to its stem against the wall. And then, with the coming of the night the north wind was again loosed, while the rain still beat against the windows and pattered down from the low Dutch eaves.

When it was light enough Johnsy, the merciless, commanded that the shade be raised.

The ivy leaf was still there.

Johnsy lay for a long time looking at it. And then she called to Sue, who was stirring her chicken broth over the gas stove.

“I’ve been a bad girl, Sudie,” said Johnsy. “Something has made that last leaf stay there to show me how wicked I was. It is a sin to want to die. You may bring a me a little broth now, and some milk with a little port in it, and – no; bring me a hand-mirror first, and then pack some pillows about me, and I will sit up and watch you cook.”

And hour later she said:

“Sudie, some day I hope to paint the Bay of Naples.”

The doctor came in the afternoon, and Sue had an excuse to go into the hallway as he left.

“Even chances,” said the doctor, taking Sue’s thin, shaking hand in his. “With good nursing you’ll win.” And now I must see another case I have downstairs. Behrman, his name is – some kind of an artist, I believe. Pneumonia, too. He is an old, weak man, and the attack is acute. There is no hope for him; but he goes to the hospital to-day to be made more comfortable.”

The next day the doctor said to Sue: “She’s out of danger. You won. Nutrition and care now – that’s all.”

And that afternoon Sue came to the bed where Johnsy lay, contentedly knitting a very blue and very useless woollen shoulder scarf, and put one arm around her, pillows and all.

“I have something to tell you, white mouse,” she said. “Mr. Behrman died of pneumonia to-day in the hospital. He was ill only two days. The janitor found him the morning of the first day in his room downstairs helpless with pain. His shoes and clothing were wet through and icy cold. They couldn’t imagine where he had been on such a dreadful night. And then they found a lantern, still lighted, and a ladder that had been dragged from its place, and some scattered brushes, and a palette with green and yellow colors mixed on it, and – look out the window, dear, at the last ivy leaf on the wall. Didn’t you wonder why it never fluttered or moved when the wind blew? Ah, darling, it’s Behrman’s masterpiece – he painted it there the night that the last leaf fell.”

– O.Henry

The Fun They Had

Written in 1951 for a syndicated newspaper page by Isaac Asimov, ‘The Fun They Had’ was later published in Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine.

Margie even wrote about it that night in her diary. On the page headed May 17, 2157, she wrote, “Today, Tommy found a real book!”

It was a very old book. Margie’s grandfather once said that when he was a little boy his grandfather told him that there was a time when all stories were printed on paper.

They turned the pages, which were yellow and crinkly, and it was awfully funny to read words that stood still instead of moving the way they were supposed to–on a screen, you know. And then, when they turned back to the page before, it had the same words on it that it had had when they read it the first time.

“Gee,” said Tommy, “What a waste. When you’re through with the book, you just throw it away, I guess. Our television screen must have had a million books on it and it’s good for plenty more. I wouldn’t throw it away.”

“Same with mine,” said Margie. She was eleven and hadn’t seen as many telebooks as Tommy had. He was thirteen. She said, “Where did you find it?”

“In my house.” He pointed without looking, because he was busy reading. “In the attic.” “What’s it about?” “School.”

Margie was scornful. “School? What’s there to write about school? I hate school.”

Margie always hated school, but now she hated it more than ever. The mechanical teacher had been giving her test after test in geography and she had been doing worse and worse until her mother had shaken her head sorrowfully and sent for the County Inspector.

He was a round little man with a red face and a whole box of tools with dials and wires. He smiled at Margie and gave her an apple, then took the teacher apart. Margie had hoped he wouldn’t know how to put it together again, but he knew how all right, and, after an hour or so, there it was again, large and black and ugly, with a big screen on which all the lessons were shown and the questions were asked. That wasn’t so bad. The part Margie hated most was the slot where she had to put homework and test papers. She always had to write them out in a punch code they made her learn when she was six years old, and the mechanical teacher calculated the mark in no time.

The Inspector had smiled after he was finished and patted Margie’s head. He said to her mother, “It’s not the little girl’s fault, Mrs. Jones. I think the geography sector was geared a little too quick. Those things happen sometimes. I’ve slowed it up to an average ten-year level. Actually, the over-all pattern of her progress is quite satisfactory.” And he patted Margie’s head again.

Margie was disappointed. She had been hoping they would take the teacher away altogether. They had once taken Tommy’s teacher away for nearly a month because the history sector had blanked out completely.

So she said to Tommy, “Why would anyone write about school?”

Tommy looked at her with very superior eyes. “Because it’s not our kind of school, stupid. This is the old kind of school that they had hundreds and hundreds of years ago.” He added loftily, pronouncing the word carefully, “Centuries ago.”

Margie was hurt. “Well, I don’t know what kind of school they had all that time ago.” She read the book over his shoulder for a while, then said, “Anyway, they had a teacher.”

“Sure they had a teacher, but it wasn’t a regular teacher. It was a man.” “A man? How could a man be a teacher?” “Well, he just told the boys and girls things and gave them homework and asked them questions.” “A man isn’t smart enough.” “Sure he is. My father knows as much as my teacher.” “He can’t. A man can’t know as much as a teacher.” “He knows almost as much, I betcha.”

Margie wasn’t prepared to dispute that. She said, “I wouldn’t want a strange man in my house to teach me.”

Tommy screamed with laughter. “You don’t know much, Margie. The teachers didn’t live in the house. They had a special building and all the kids went there.” “And all the kids learned the same thing?” “Sure, if they were the same age.”

“But my mother says a teacher has to be adjusted to fit the mind of each boy and girl it teaches and that each kid has to be taught differently.”

“Just the same they didn’t do it that way then. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to read the book.”

“I didn’t say I didn’t like it,” Margie said quickly. She wanted to read about those funny schools.

They weren’t even half-finished when Margie’s mother called, “Margie! School!” Margie looked up. “Not yet, Mamma.”

“Now!” said Mrs. Jones. “And it’s probably time for Tommy, too.”

Margie said to Tommy, “Can I read the book some more with you after school?”

“Maybe,” he said nonchalantly. He walked away whistling, the dusty old book tucked beneath his arm.

Margie went into the schoolroom. It was right next to her bedroom, and the mechanical teacher was on and waiting for her. It was always on at the same time every day except Saturday and Sunday, because her mother said little girls learned better if they learned at regular hours.

The screen was lit up, and it said: “Today’s arithmetic lesson is on the addition of proper fractions. Please insert yesterday’s homework in the proper slot.”

Margie did so with a sigh. She was thinking about the old schools they had when her grandfather’s grandfather was a little boy. All the kids from the whole neighborhood came, laughing and shouting in the schoolyard, sitting together in the schoolroom, going home together at the end of the day. They learned the same things, so they could help one another on the homework and talk about it.

And the teachers were people…

The mechanical teacher was flashing on the screen: “When we add the fractions 1/2 and 1/4…”

Margie was thinking about how the kids must have loved it in the old days. She was thinking about the fun they had.

Run, Bulbul, Run!

This heart-warming story is written by Sigrun Srivastav, a German-born Indian author.

Ramzan Goroo watched his horse throw up his head and snort defiantly. Then he reached up so quickly that Ramzan’s father lost his balance and was thrown to the ground.

”Father!” cried Ramzan Goroo. “Father!”

He ran across the yards towards the horse. The tall man jumped to his feet angrily. “That horse has to go. Yes, yes! What good is it to us if it throws its own master? By Allah, I will not tolerate it!”

”He never throws me,” said Ramzan softly.

”He never throws you,” thundered his father, his face red with rage, “but he has thrown me thrice. And soon he’ll start throwing the tourists. And what will that do to our business, may I ask? No, Ramzan, Bulbul must go. The moment I get a buyer, I’m going to sell him. Now take him to the International Camp and see that you get a few good trips. We need some money.”

”Yes, Father,” said Ramzan and felt tears pricking his eyes. Avoiding his father’s eyes he took the horse by the reins and left. As he walked Bulbul through the village, he talked to him, “Listen, Raja Bulbul, I know you understand me. You are my horse. Nobody loves you more than I do. But if you want to stay with me you will have to behave yourself. You mustn’t throw anybody, especially not Father. Will you promise me that?”

The horse looked at the twelve-year-old boy with his large, liquid shining eyes. He neighed and rubbed his soft nose against Ramzan’s shoulder.

Ramzan patted Bulbul’s beautifully shaped head and stroked his soft white coat.

”Come on now,” he said. “Let’s go and earn some money.”

Ramzan mounted the horse and galloped down the road towards Pahalgam. They soon reached the large camping site.

He didn’t have to wait long before Bulbul was chosen by a tall American.

”To Aru,” the American said with broad smile. “You can leave me at the market there. I am going up into the Lidder Valley.”

Ramzan helped the young man into the saddle and handed him the reins. The horse found his way surely down the slope onto the main road. Ramzan encouraged him with soft clicking sounds as he trotted behind, thinking about what he could do to change his father’s mind.

Reaching Aru Village, he tucked away the money he had earned, safely into the inner pocket of his woolen firan and made his way to the roadside tea-shop. Leaving Bulbul to munch the grass, he settled down with a large glass of tea and a couple of dry buns.

Leaning against the wall of the tea-shop, and sipping the hot tea, Ramzan’s eyes swept over the valley’s snow-covered mountain peaks. He didn’t like the colour of the sky. It looked grey and the air dangerously still. He could smell a storm brewing – a big one.

Finishing his tea quickly he fetched the horse and said to the owner of the shop, “I’d better hurry. I don’t want to reach home drenched to the skin.”

He galloped down the road, along the Lidder river. An hour later a gust of wind swept through the trees. Their branches bent and swayed as the gale screeched through their leaves. To his right Ramzan saw a great, black cloud crawl over the sky, spreading out like a gigantic monster. The day grew ominously dark as the clouds came lower and covered the snow-peaked mountains. In the distance he could hear the rumble of approaching thunder.

”If I take the short cut via the Army camp, I might just make it home in time,” Ramzan thought and wrapping his blanket tightly round his shoulder, said “Come on, Bulbul, let’s go!”

He dug his feet into the horse and guided him up into the wood onto a small bridle path. “Run, Bulbul, fast!”

Above his head he heard the wind tear at the branches. It swished through the underwood and whipped into Ramzan’s face, freezing his breath.

”Hurry, Bulbul,” urged the boy crouching low over the horse’s neck. “Hurry.”

The horse dashed on, sure-footed and confident. He knew the forest as well as his master, maybe even better. The first drops of rain drummed on the leaves. A blinding flash lit up the sky and an ear-splitting crash echoed and re-echoed in the valley. Tightening the reins, Ramzan coaxed the nervous horse, “Easy now, easy. You are doing fine. You are doing fine.”

Bulbul neighed and tossed his head. A series of quick flashes of lightning pierced the darkness of the wood blinding the boy. Then the forest dipped back into a murky grey. Ramzan’s heart beat rapidly against his chest. The boy and the horse stood still, immobilized with fear.

And then it happened. The next blinding flash was so close, Ramzan thought it had struck him. A deafening thunderbolt almost jerked Ramzan off the saddle. The horse whinnied and strained against the reins. He reared up and neighed frantically.

”Down, Bulbul, down,” ordered Ramzan. “Down, that’s a good horse.” And he pressed his heels gently into the horse’s flanks.

The horse stood rigid, all his senses attuned to danger. He trembled, but before Ramzan could decide whether to turn back or to continue, a big branch fell and struck him heavily on the shoulder. It flung him of the horse burying him under a mass of twigs, cones and branches. The sudden fall knocked the wind out of Ramzan. Then he winced as a sharp pain shot through his body. He tried to free himself from the tangle of green, tried to push off the heavy load that pinned him to the ground, but he just couldn’t move. Something had happened to his shoulder and tight leg. He couldn’t move them. Oh God! Terror rose inside him.

Another flash of thunder tore the sky. A lightning bolt followed and rain began to pelt down. Down it came with such force that the ground was soaked in a minute.

”Raja Bulbul,” cried Ramzan helplessly, “Bulbul.”

Once more he tried to push his left hand and leg. He squirmed and twisted his body, till he finally managed to throw off the branch that had pinned him down. Panting with exertion, rain streaming down his face, he crawled towards the horse. “Come, Bulbul, come,” he called softly. Bulbul neighed anxiously and came close enough for Ramzan to grab the reins. But this superhuman effort drained Ramzan of all energy, overwhelming pain tore through him. The sky spun round and round and a heavy blackness overtook him. He lay unconscious. He didn’t feel the rain then through, from very far away it seemed, he heard a horse snort, heard it make soft sounds in an attempt to wake him up. Bulbul, Raja Bulbul!

He knew he wouldn’t be able to mount the horse. He had to wait till someone found him. But nobody knew where he was. They wouldn’t know where to search for him.

”Oh, Bulbul,” he cried in despair, “Bulbul.” The horse bent over had nuzzled the injured boy. “Oh Bulbul,” sobbed the boy, “what shall I do?”

Bulbul neighed softly, and then moved restlessly, trying to urge his master into the saddle.

Bulbul! If anyone could help, he could.

”Bulbul,” said Ramzan urgently, “listen to me. You have to go home, home! Raja,” he stressed, “home. You have to bring Father here. Get him, please!”

The horse stood still. He was breathing rapidly. All his instincts told him to flee but his eyes were fixed on his master. His ears twitched backwards and forwards restlessly as he tried to follow Ramzan’s words. “Bulbul,” said Ramzan pulling the horse’s head down and patting him lovingly. “Bulbul, run home. As fast as you can. You will find the way. Bring Father here, bring him here. Go, Bulbul, go.” He let go the reins and ordered, “Go home, Bulbul. Run, Bulbul, run.” Then another spasm of pain shook his body and he sank back to the ground.

The horse’s nostrils flared and his magnificent body trembled. But he did not move. Ramzan ordered one last time. “Go home, Bulbul, bring Father,” and with the last ounce of strength he struck the horse on the rump. The horse reluctantly took a few steps, turned and looked back, his large eyes puzzled.

”Go,” cried Ramzan, “please.” Bulbul reared on his legs, whinnied sympathetically, then turned and ran. He was soon lost in a curtain of rain.

Ramzan Goroo closed his eyes.

The horse galloped through the night, slipping now and then on the wet ground. Twigs and branches whipped his body, scratched his coat and tugged at the reins, hanging loose by his side. He didn’t feel anything. He went on as fast as he could, jumping over little rivulets, carefully crossing rickety wooden bridges, over mountain streams. He didn’t stop, he charged on till he reached the village, and hooves thundering, galloped straight into the courtyard. He stopped in front of the house, reared up and whinnied loudly. He whinnied again and again, till the door opened and a man appeared, carrying a lamp. It was Ramzan’s father.

”Ramzan,” he called into the rain. “Is that you, boy?”

Silence. Only the heavy snorting of the horse and the thud of his hooves, as he shifted nervously, could be heard.

”Ramzan?” asked the man alarmed. “Answer me.”

A woman tried to push past the man. He stopped her with his left arm. “Wait.”

”Ramzan?” he asked once more and swung the lamp up. Then he saw the horse, standing there on trembling legs. His coat was steaming and his teeth gleamed in the dark.

”Bulbul,” cried Ramzan’s father. And Ramzan’s mother cried, “Ramzan, where is Ramzan? Oh, Allah! What has happened to him?”

”That devil of a horse must have thrown him,” roared Ramzan’s father. “I knew he was good for nothing. He threw me just this morning. He must have thrown Ramzan too. I’ll kill that horse. I’ll kill him!”

”No, please! Stop, stop,” cried the woman. “Bulbul would never throw Ramzan, never! Maybe there was an accident. Perhaps Ramzan was unable to ride home and Bulbul has come to fetch us. Please, oh please, don’t hit the horse. See, he’s calling you, I can feel it. He wants you to go with him.”

”I am not mounting that devil,” replied Ramzan’s father. “I, I, …”

”Then I will go,” said the woman picking up her shawl. “Yes, by Allah I will.”

A short silence. Then Ramzan’s father said wearily, “Very well, I’ll try, but …”

”Do try, please,” cried the woman. “I know he’ll take you to Ramzan. Be gentle. Talk to him softly. He’s a good horse, but you must know how to handle him. Go, Allah be with you.”

Hesitantly Ramzan’s father walked through the rain towards the horse. He walked slowly, talking to him the way he had heard Ramzan talk to him.

”Raja Bulbul,” he said, “You love your master. Yes, you are Ramzan’s horse. I know, I know, and maybe that’s why I’ve resented you. I am sorry. Now, your master is in danger! Only you and I can help him. Bring him back home. We must reach him fast, as fast as you can take me. Let me mount you. Now come on, Bulbul, it’s for your master’s sake.”

His voice had grown softer, reduced to a mere whisper.

Bulbul stiffened, took a step back and looked at the man. Slowly the man stretched out his hand and touched the horse’s coat, rubbing it gently. “Bulbul, shabash Bulbul!” Then holding on to the saddle he mounted, slowly with care. The horse snorted softly.

”Good horse, good horse,” murmured the man, patting his head. “Let’s go, Bulbul. Take us to Ramzan. Go.”

He galloped through the rain. Two of his neighbours joined him.

No one spoke. They sat hunched on their horses, their eyes piercing the grey mist.

”Ramzan,” they shouted occasionally. “Ramzan, It’s me, your Abbu. Ramza … n! Rama … n!

After a while the rain stopped.

”Do you think the horse will be able to find the place?” whispered Farookh to the other rider.

”I don’t know,” muttered the man, “I don’t know, but I hope he will.”

They came to a wooden bridge. The swollen and turbulent river beat against the bridge planks. They didn’t dare look down as the horses crossed.

”Ramzan,” they shouted time and again. Minutes ticked by. Suddenly Bulbul reared, snorted loudly and broke into a wild gallop.

”I think I can see him,” cried Ramzan’s father. “Yes, there he is lying near a broken tree. Ramzan, oh Ramzan! Run, Bulbul, run.”

The horse seemed to fly the last few meters. Ramzan’s father jumped off and was by his son’s side in a second.

”Ramzan,” he whispered, lifting the boy’s head gently.

Ramzan lay very still. His face was blue from the cold and pinched with pain. Slowly he opened his eyes and looked straight into his father’s anguished face. His lips moved but no sound came out. Then he saw Bulbul and his face lit up.

”I knew he would make it,” he said brokenly. “I knew he would. Come here, Bulbul.”

The horse came and lowering his head rubbed his nose against his master’s cheek.

The Mousetrap

(This is a short story I read on Quora by Praveen Mohan. All credits go to him for this beauty of a story).

 

He had spent the best part of the morning trying to navigate rush hour en route to his office. His boss was in an especially foul mood and yelled at him for no reason. He bore it stoically – the job market wasn’t so hot. He didn’t feel like socializing that day, so at lunch time he ate the cold, soggy lunch that he had brought in his Tupperware, in his cubicle.

His back creaked, having been subjected to stress by sitting continuously in the same position. He sat hunched over the monitor, squinting at the bright LCD screen awash in the glare of the fluorescent lights overhead. The harsh, artificial lighting strained his unblinking eyes and often gave him a headache. The air conditioner continued to emit the same tepid air and he wondered how refreshing the air outdoors was. His cubicle was too far away from the windows, so the light rain that fell that afternoon was left unappreciated. He maintained a constant pecking on his keyboard, in response to the never-ending stream of mails in his Inbox and silently cursed all the idiots who cc-ed and bcc-ed him in their emails for no apparent reason. Finally, it was time to go home.

After wrestling with the evening traffic and purchasing the weekly groceries, he sat down wearily on the sofa. His wife promptly took the opportunity to share with him the shenanigans committed by the maid and the various issues in her family forest. Mentally shaken, he took his kids to the playground and kept an eye on them while they screamed at the other kids.

Later, after paying the bills and balancing the checkbook, he decided to call it a night. Before his head could hit the pillow and spirit him away, his wife asked him to check the kitchen to see if they had finally caught the rodent stealing their food. They had. He picked up the mousetrap and held it up at eye level to take a better look.  The rat desperately lunged at the walls of the trap, trying to break free, seeking the tantalizing freedom that was awaiting it outside.

Easy fella, I know exactly how you feel”, he whispered.

Some Thanks, And Now Introducing: Storybook Sundays!!!

Okay, I’m not as excited about Storybook Sundays as this was the most cliched title I could ever pick. Before I can rant on what this series is all about, let me tell my readers and WordPress one thing: thank you.

I don’t know how many times I can thank you guys at WordPress out there, and my readers as well. Reason? Well, thanks to my new-found addiction of blogging, I have got 79 marks out of 80 in my English half-yearly examination. I’m incredibly happy, as I rocked my school being the highest ever scorer in English, all time, since the school began way back in the 80’s.

My English teacher is pretty happy with my blog too, so a big thank you to her too: for her lenient correction (ahem) and excellent teaching.

Coming to Storybook SundaysIt has taken me a while to realise that I’m utterly incapable of writing short stories, so I’m calling it quits (thankfully). But it has also sunk in that there are millions of other stories in many other languages, that do not garner the attention they deserve,

So in Storybook Sundays, you will not be prosecuted with my own attempts, but with various delightful tales of love, mystery, romance, suspense…Well, you get my cliched point.

Starting this Sunday, there will be a story a week. Love it or hate it, (I hope) you cannot ignore these poignant tales.

Adieu, my readers!

Madvanthi