The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli

By SMW Staff

No answer.

“Should I take you home? Home? To Mama? Where do you live?”

Rested, the girl began to sob again with more energy, fresh tears.

No good deed goes unpunished. The camera bag pulled heavy and bulky. As she held the girl, walking up and down the street to flag attention, it knocked against her hip. She slipped the shoulder strap off and set it down on the ground, all the while talking under her breath to herself: What are you doing What are you doing? What are you doing? The child was surprisingly heavy, although Helen could feel ribs and the sharp, pinionlike bones of shoulder blades. The legs that wrapped viselike around Helen’s waist were sticky, a strong scent of urine filling her nostrils.

A stab of impatience. “I’ve got to go, sweetie. Where is Mama?”

She bounced the girl to quiet her and paced back and forth. Her mind wasn’t clear; why was she losing her precious hours, involving herself now, when she had passed hundreds of desperate children before? But she had heard this one’s cries so clearly. A sign? A sign she was losing it was more like it, Linh would say.

A young woman hurried across the intersection, glanced at Helen and the child, then looked away.

The orphanage was overflowing. Should she take the girl home with her? Once they abandoned this corner, she would be Helen’s responsibility. Could she take her out of the country with Linh? What had she been thinking to stop? Was it a trap? By whom? Was it a test? By what?

Helen stroked the girl’s hair, irritated. She had a heart-shaped face, ears like perfect small shells. A bath and a nice dress would make her quite lovely.

Ten, fifteen minutes passed. The idea of this being a sign seemed more stupid by the minute. Not a soul came, nothing except the tinny, popping sound of guns far away. Helen toyed with the idea of putting the girl back down. Surely the family was close by, was searching for her. No harm done in keeping the girl company for a few minutes. Not her responsibility, after all. When she began to kneel to deposit her back on the ground, the girl’s arms tightened to a choke hold around her neck, and Helen, resigned, strained back up. All wrong; a terrible mistake. A proof that she was failing. Linh would be worrying by now, might even try to go out to find her.

Helen bent and fished for the strap of her camera bag, putting it on the other shoulder to balance the weight. Maybe it was a sign. Insane, but what else could she do but take the child with her?

Halfway down the street, a woman’s voice yelled from behind them. Helen turned to see a plain, moonfaced woman with thin, cracked lips stride towards them.

“Are you her mother?” Helen asked, guilt welling up. “I wasn’t trying to take her—”

The woman yanked the girl out of Helen’s arms, eyes pinched hard. The girl whimpered as the mother swatted her on the leg and scolded her.

“She couldn’t tell me where she lived,” Helen said.

But the mother had already turned without another glance and stalked away. The girl looked over the mother’s shoulder, dark eyes dark expressionless. In a few more steps, they turned the corner and disappeared.

For the briefest moment Helen felt wronged, missed the weight on her hip and the sticky legs, but then the feeling was gone. How had the mother been so neglectful anyway? It rankled that she had not been thanked or even acknowledged for her effort. But with the shedding of that temporary burden, the old excitement buoyed up in her again. The possibility of the girl disappeared into the past. She’d better pull herself together. She picked up her bag, checked her watch, and ran.

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Here’s what SMW’s Book Bloggers are saying about THE LOTUS EATERS:

The Lotus Eaters is haunting, evocative and marvelously written fiction. — Caribousmom

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