A Cat and Mouse Game

By Mandira Pattnaik

This evening, Szra isn’t thinking of G, or what happened when he found out about her past, or how much she trusted him, or if shopwindow glass stands for reflection, as in a mirror, or is synonym for brittle, sharp, hurting.

Streets in Olgavy intersect at perpendicular angles. Angles are always right — not the turns. Szra knows. She’s turned wrong many times in the city she calls home. 

Here, shopping arcades are in the sunlit boulevards. The rich, touristy, in straw hats haggling with hawkers, the local crowd in shady corners.

Szra, due date imminent, begins determining baby names as she crosses the Broadway — it could be Alex, Joye, Menr — if future is kind, her child will learn to live with either of them. She steps into JoyLand Mall; sweeps away the jarring thoughts and enters the Kikini Grocery and All megastore. 

Szra isn’t forgetful; she’s jotted down a shopping list, takes it out from her bag. Just as she remembers things from her past like postcard images — the bulbous eyes, handheld mirrors, and tin butter containers. They haunt her everywhere. She skips the racks of imported cosmetics because of the tins, also the pet food shelves with the dog’s protruding eyes. 

She rolls the shopping cart past tourists who consider this therapy, past decorative flower bunches, a middle-aged couple arguing over crochet or knit bikini. 

‘Aye, why don’t you just go ho-o-me?’ A tall man with putrid breath, jutting yellow teeth, hollers; stretching the last word to almost a whistle, even as he swipes an American credit card at the kiosk. 

Home? Szra knows the sort, what they mean. She pays with soiled cash and walks out. 

She lingers in front of the shop windows, in front of Burger King, sees her reflection in the glass. Notices the loud video playing, the gaudy colors of the youngster’s shirts as they bend over the steel railing or come up the escalator like rising up in life. She is a youngster who hates Malls. If it weren’t for these fast-sprouting-social-gathering-places, she’d never have met G. Yet she visits as if pulled by attraction, her eyes searching for something she cannot name. 

Stopping before the Calvin Klein window, she wonders what it’d take to buy something for herself. Wonders if G was splurging on his new girlfriend this moment somewhere here. How she hates herself for thinking of him, again.

Gathering her shopping bags, she snatches herself away and out in the bustling street. Makes her way past giant posters of Hollywood stars, neon lights, and stalls where toasted buns are being halved, smeared with generous dollops from rusted-at-the-corners smuggled-in foreign butter containers she used to pry open for her father before deveining the shrimps in their stall at the beach. Just before the tsunami. The white men demanded, ‘Got something? Fresh, exotic? Show us!’ Wasn’t only the shrimps that were on display for sale. The buyer and she would soon be in the same ventilation-less room for as much time as he’d have paid her father for.

Bulbous eyes watch her as she climbs the Portuguese villa’s spiraling wrought iron stairs, clutching the railing to balance her increasingly heavy body, feeling a tad dizzy. ‘Eighteen minutes’ he barks. He keeps time when the girls are let out. At other times, he’s pinning numbers to the rooms and handing out chits of paper to the connoisseurs of ‘tropical life’. 

A man strolls past, groping her back when she’s unlocking her room. She’s used to these now, after years of catering to roving tourists idea of cheap relaxation.

Inside her room, it is pitch dark, except the glow of the tiny ornate handheld mirrors she’s collected over the years — silver ones, tempered glass-framed, ivory carved. 

Mirrors — Mum used to say — they’re afterlife passages. 

Only if Szra could find the one in which G and she are trapped forever, together, like in a selfie, the glitzy lights of Bargain Shop in the background. 

                                                                  *   *   *

Mandira Pattnaik’s work has appeared in Best Small Fictions, Bacopa Literary, Press53, Citron Review, Watershed Review, Passages North, DASH, and Timber Journal among others. Pushcart x 2, Best of the Net and Best Microfictions nominated, her work has received high commendations in Litro Contest 2021 and CRAFT Contest 2020. 


Leave a Reply