Posted on: December 21, 2016

“Good match.” Amy walked from her baseline to the net. She took Riley’s hand and shook it. She was hot and sweaty, her skin a little rough from gripping a racket every day. Only ten years Riley’s senior, and she already worked as a teaching pro.

When their hands slid apart, Riley said, “Thanks.”

“Keep practicing those volleys.” Amy leaned her racket against the net. She wiped her forehead with her towel. “Master those and you’ll beat a lot of kids your age.”

“Continental grip, right?” Riley picked up his racket and held it out. “Like this?”

Amy glanced at his hand, drying off her hands with the towel. “Turn your racket a smidge to the right.” Riley turned it left. “Other right.” When Riley turned it again, Amy laughed. “Very funny. You know the grip.”

Riley smiled. He did, but he wouldn’t have minded if Amy adjusted his grip with her hand. “I want to play another practice match when I get it right. Maybe I’ll win.”

Amy laughed. “We’ll see.” She tossed her towel to the bench. “Now where’s my next opponent?”

Riley grabbed his own water bottle. He unscrewed the cap and chugged it. Nothing was better than winter clinics. Over the summer, this court—and all the others—were outdoors. In the winter, the club erected a bubble, a temporary grid of steel beams crisscrossing beneath a thick, plasticky, dome.

This was court one, the show court, where the club scheduled tournament finals in the summer. Today, it was also the court where Amy reigned, awaiting new challengers every half hour as part of today’s match play.

Riley was about to ask if Amy would play another set when the new girl burst into the bubble. She jogged over, letting the door slam behind her. She wore her tennis bag across one shoulder; it bounced against her side with each step.

“Hello, Miss Hannah. Where have you been?” Amy asked.

“Playing a tiebreak,” the new girl said. “With Derek.”

Riley snorted. He’d beaten Derek a thousand times in the past few years. Maybe this new girl wasn’t as good as the pros thought – Riley had heard them whispering about her tournament record before match play.

“Have you two met?” Amy asked. “Hannah, Riley. Riley, Hannah.”

“Nice to meet you.” The new girl set her Wilson bag down on Riley’s bench, next to his extra racket. She couldn’t have been more than twelve or thirteen.


“You’re with me until noon. Anything particular you want to work on?”

“Can we play a set?” the new girl asked.

“Sounds good.” Amy picked up her racket and turned to Riley. “You’re back on court two.”

“I know.” Riley didn’t move. “Can I watch a point?”

“Someone’s waiting for you.”

“Please? I’ve heard Hannah’s really good.”

Amy looked to Hannah and then back to Riley. Hannah shrugged. “If you really want to,” Amy said. “Just one point.”

Riley shuffled to the back of the court, squatting against the edge of the bubble, beside a steel beam. When the new girl reached her baseline, she fiddled with her racket strings, examining Riley through the gaps in the polyester...probably wondering why he’d chosen to squat behind her instead of sitting on the benches, like he should have. Riley wanted a front row seat.

Amy bounced a ball on the opposite baseline. Her forehead creased with concentration. The new girl had white stripes down the back of her shirt; they shifted back and forth, blocking his view of Amy as she readied herself for Amy’s serve. Ace her, Riley thought.

Amy hit an easy serve. The new girl split-stepped and hit a forehead back. Though Amy could’ve put the ball away, she didn’t. She’d done the same thing at the beginning of Riley’s set: Amy could hit a thousand winners off of each shot, but instead of pounding the ball, she returned it, analyzing Hannah’s forehands and backhands, identifying weaknesses and cataloging them. Testing her opponents.

The new girl split-stepped again. There was something magical about her, something natural and easy and right. So that was why the pros were whispering about her earlier—she never stopped moving, and she was never caught unaware. Riley watched the new girl’s feet, her perfect split-steps, the swish of her skort as she chased a short shot from Amy.

Amy, of course, was even more perfect. Now, Riley wished he’d sat on her side. Who cared about watching the new girl lose when he could’ve been watching Amy’s powerful legs and toned arms, the turn of her body with each shot, her brown ponytail bouncing with each split-step.

The new girl charged the net. Time for Amy to destroy her. Amy’s passing shot bounced well within the court boundaries and knocked into the wall to Riley’s right. Ha! Riley would’ve gotten his racket on that, at least. He couldn’t wait to see how Amy beat her in the next point.

But Amy stopped play. “You’re practically in the alley. I had the whole court to pass you. Don’t make it too easy for me.”

Hannah moved to her right. “Better?”


So what if the new girl was twelve or whatever, and beating some of the kids Riley’s age? Amy’s suggestions and advice were reserved for Riley, her special student, because they were so good together and worked so well. Riley and Amy, teacher and student and more, without Hannah.

“Watch out—at some point, I’m going to make you do that again,” Amy said.

The new girl nodded, and Amy served the next point.

What just happened? Amy was supposed to be Riley’s pro. She saw him as more than a student; he knew it. They always worked together. He took private lessons with her. She gave him extra time, because she liked him so much, and sometimes she brought presents around the holidays, a little bag of candy or a few cookies. If she didn’t like him, why did she treat him special? Was Amy lying, faking it? Riley, her favorite student, was a mere shadow in the back of her strategizing session with the new girl, an intruder in their private bubble, their private moment. His presence—and feelings—didn’t much matter, whether they filled the bubble or not – and he wondered how long before it popped.

The new girl flubbed an easy forehand; the ball sailed into the net. This time, Amy offered no advice. Instead, she called, “Riley. When are you going to court two?”

Written by: Natalie Schriefer
Photograph by: Anthony Delanoix


Posted on: December 14, 2016

A carpet may be spread for anyone:
spread for the Buddha bathed in blood,
and also for the weaver
of the same blood-stained carpet.
- "Every town is a hometown, all people are kin," Sukirtharani

Lobsang was aged thirty-two when I first met him. He was passing through Calcutta, headed southward. He had come down from the northern plains a few weeks ago. He was headed south to visit a hospital where a fellow monk, a friend, was admitted for surgery.

I was waiting for a north-bound suburban train at Sealdah when I wandered into the long-distance platforms out of boredom. I took a seat beside a tea vendor. When sipping on tea a beggar approached me, whom I told forthrightly that I had no money with me. I was unemployed and we were in the same boat.

"Give me the tea then. Or buy me one."

"No, I can't." An eerie sense of guilt went through my spine, recognizable through years of encounters. Passing through the streets of Calcutta, one becomes familiar with these feelings especially when indulging in hedonism in the gaze of the have-nots. The feeling goes away a few minutes later, very similar to any guilt induced by capitalism and inequality.

The beggar went towards Lobsang. Lobsang was seated on the ground. The beggar asked him for money and he handed some over. He asked again, and Lobsang handed over more money. This went on for a while till Lobsang got up and walked away. The beggar came back towards the tea vendor with a grin on his face and looked at me and said, "What would you do with so much money?"

I would later learn my guilt was nothing compared to what bothered Lobsang.

I ran into him the next day at Sudder Street. I was waiting by the crossing beside Blue Sky Café for a friend to arrive. She had texted to tell me that she wasn’t going to be on time, so I started wandering around the street and smoking cigarettes to while away time.

The sky was overcast with a comfortable chill in the air, one that didn’t require more than one layer of clothing. I liked to loiter around Sudder Street and observe people whenever I had a chance. One could find a diverse group of people here, from the middle class looking for a fix or a drink, to tourists waiting to be haggled by another class of Indians. A lot of white and east Asian tourists halted in the cheap hotels targeted for backpackers. Since the hippies first arrived, neighbourhoods such as these in most cities learned to peddle religion, drugs, ethnic trinkets and clothes to the young backpackers seeking adventure, belief, and authenticity.

It didn’t take long for the drug peddlers to start asking me what I was seeking. One of the peddlers told me some new stuff had arrived, which the city hadn't seen before. I told him I had no money. He asked me to spread the word. I responded with a certain nod of the head. When my friend arrived she stood with me on the street and smoked some more while we bathed in the comfortable winter wind.

That's when I saw him again, or so I thought. A Buddhist monk was walking by on the street.

"Oi, bald man. Oi, Buddhist. Need some stuff?" the peddler shouted out to him.

The crowd around the narrow crossroad turned its gaze towards the peddler. He kept shouting and calling out to Lobsang. Lobsang kept his eyes on the ground, not moving from the feet. As Lobsang walked away from the lane towards the main road, the peddler turned around to see the crowd staring at him. The peddler looked all around and started laughing as the crowd dispersed and he took a drunken walk to the curb and sat down.


Lobsang ran away from his monastery when he was twenty-nine. He had come to Calcutta to look for certain books when a man had mugged him on the streets in the night. With no money to go back, he reacted. He ran behind the man who stole the money and tackled him on the ground. The man reacted with his elbows but Lobsang hit him in the face a few times till his fist was bloodied. The tussle went on for what felt like a few minutes. When Lobsang got up, he noticed that the man was not moving and his clothes were tattered.

Lobsang went to the nearest police station with his bloodied, torn attire, surrendered and confessed the whole incident. He stayed locked up in the prison for eight months while he waited for his trail to finish. The state-sponsored lawyer made sure he was proven not guilty with a plea of self-defense. The man he had killed, was a repeating offender. It did not take the judge much to persuade.

Since then Lobsang has roamed the streets of Calcutta and Eastern India without any affiliation to a monastery, much like students unaffiliated to the universities, reading and studying on their own. Lobsang wrote about his days in the prison in a national daily. He wrote about how in his life of repentance he had come closer to the common people and in the process acquired greater knowledge. The insularity of the monasteries had never led him to ponder on deeper questions of practical ethics. When was it right or wrong to kill a man?


It was when he was published in the daily, which was later syndicated across various websites and social media, I recognized the man I saw on the streets those two times. Lobsang was a man who was much more complicated than he first appeared under the simple clothing. The ochre-colored cloth seemed to me like a vessel to carry the ascetic body and also a costume to hide behind. As the media lapped over him and slowly projected him as a man of wisdom, I started to wonder whether wisdom was too hasty a word to use for anyone.

During an encounter with Lobsang when I accompanied my friend Romila, a documentary director, he looked into the camera and gave elaborate answers to all questions Romila threw at him. During one of the interviews that he was giving for a television network, we followed him into the studio and recorded the interview from behind the studio cameras. His face never flinched when he confessed about the killing. His smiles transitioned effortlessly into a contemplative face. We replayed the videos in slow motion but couldn’t find an iota of guilt on his face. His wandering it appeared had indeed purged his guilt.

When we asked him what motivated him to write in the daily, his eyes looked into one of the cameras for a second and then looked straight into Romila’s eyes and he answered, “I wanted to share the knowledge I accumulated over the years.”

Written by: Debarun Sarkar
Photograph by: Michael Ken

Megan’s Journey Through the Labyrinth

Posted on: December 7, 2016

She’d searched for Ford that day and met Benedikt instead; at the end of the afternoon they shook hands…

It was nice meeting you

…but it didn’t end as Megan had hoped, because the following week she met Benedikt again. She’d been on her way to a quiet, empty table at Café Nikotín. She’d held a small stack of post-cards: for Mom and Dad and for a whole gaggle of friends. One significant postcard was going to Chris: she loved him, but didn’t know if she wanted to go on with the relationship. A trip into the cockles of Europe, she’d thought, might have clarified something.

“Hi,” Ford had said smiling from his seat at a buffed aluminum table centered with the pole of a green umbrella. “Care to join us?”

“It is good to see you again,” Benedikt said.

“You’ve met?” Ford asked.

“Last weekend,” Benedikt offered.

“Then you should join us.” Ford smiled. “We’re old friends it seems.”

And later, midway through her white coffee, Ford had turned the course of their halting, polite small-talk. “Have you been to the Labyrinth?” he’d asked. “We were heading there in a bit.”

She’d never been to the old stone-work maze, but it stared up at her from the face of a postcard: it was as ancient as medieval bloodshed, and as dark as this city’s history of alchemists and syphilitic, absinthe-addled poets. Romantic and spooky: it was just the kind of place that might shadow her nightmares for any long stretch of future decades, but she liked Ford’s eyes and the way his skin made her think of buffed pecans, so when he’d asked if she wanted to come along, she’d said yes against every bone-deep desire to avoid that part of the city. But it couldn’t have been such a great risk—could it?—with Ford’s skin color, and Benedikt’s off-kilter jokes and the invitation to drink škóy with him and with Ford. Though she couldn’t fathom the depths of Benedikt’s uncanny glacial gaze, she’d considered the invitation, because it would be a chance to be with Ford, to watch the movement of his hands, and imagine them touching her. If the Labyrinth was in a dicey part of the city, neither of them seemed especially worried about going there.

“You know the story of the Labyrinth?” Ford had asked


He’d shrugged. “It’s simple, really. Once you enter the Labyrinth, the only way back out is the way home.”

She’d scoffed the idea of stepping into that maze and stepping back out in Cincinnati.

But nothing was ever as simple as it seemed: reality and symbol were different things in this part of Europe.

The Labyrinth was ancient stone and mortar cemented in patterns that only a mason might have understood. Now, she picked her way—alone—through narrow, switchback corridors of stone-work walls and flagstone footpaths. Last week, Ford had told her it was best to walk through the Labyrinth with bare feet, but she’d kept her shoes on. She cringed through the memory of Benedikt stooping down and unstrapping his sandals. Though lean, there was something stocky in his manner, as if he spent his days at work, strangling bulls with his naked hands. His toes were blunt, rounded, and dusted with scant, bronze hairs. Ford, beside him, had kicked out of his shoes and pulled off his socks and for just an instant, she couldn’t tell them apart.

She was alone, now, following the path they’d taken—together—one weekend ago.

The walls of the Labyrinth were stone and mortar, but the square heart of the warren was heavy with grapevines and earwigs. Here, she saw last Saturday in her mind’s eye: Ford and Benedikt standing together and laughing at some small joke. Though they’d done their best to be nice and to include her, the Labyrinth—as Ford had said—showed her something else. And maybe the Labyrinth remembered her this evening, because it was showing her Benedikt’s gray gaze with shimmers of blue in it.

Benedikts’s eyes, last weekend, had been spooky and unreadable; she couldn’t find the personality at home in them. Now, some unnerving phantom of Benedikt held her attention with a subtle smile tugging the corners of his lips. A breeze fondled his ragamuffin hair and he raked it back with splayed, pale fingers. She flinched, glimpsing Ford at home inside of Benedikt’s eyes, staring out at her. Benedikt smiled and reached forward, touching her face with the warmth of his fingertips.

“Ford’s your boyfriend.” She felt the words spilling before she could bite them back. “And you followed me here to tell me that.”

Saddened understanding flared in Benedikt’s gaze. “I’m not here. I’m at home with Ford. But you’re here looking for something….”

“I’m not—” but she stopped.

“Home isn’t a place,” Benedikt said. “It’s the one right person who’ll miss you when you leave.”

“I don’t even know if I want to stay with Chris.”

Benedikt shrugged and touched her shoulder, softly. “I see how you look at Ford, but you can’t live in his eyes. You have no choice but to return to the one you sent that postcard to. You are not finished back there. An affair with Ford cannot make you happy, but Ford and I can be good memories for you, if you want us to be.”

She closed her eyes.

Benedikt leaned close and planted a kiss on her forehead. “It is nice that you came back to our Labyrinth, but now, you should leave. If you want company before you go, you can come to our apartment; we’re not so drunk yet. You know the way there and we’ll hear you at our buzzer.”

“I don’t want to intrude.”

“You won’t.” Benedikt smiled.

“Okay.” Megan blinked; Benedikt was gone.

As quietly as she came, she turned around and fumbled her way out of the silent, ancient maze.

All the way to Cincinnati, she thought, hesitating before stepping out of the Labyrinth completely. 

Written by: J.C. Howell
Photograph by: Victoria Ostrzenski

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
1:1000 The Design of this Blog is All rights reserved © Blog Milk Powered by Blogger