Salamander 2024 Fiction Contest

SUBMIT: May 1 through June 2, 2024 | READING FEE: $15


Floating Garden

Mary LaChapelle, 2015 Fiction Prize Winner
| Fiction


It was a truck like the army uses, but instead of the metal frame and tarp, the back was enclosed in a wooden box. Painted on the plywood was the word “taxi.”

One of the taxi men, the one who took our money, wore orange trousers with many pouches sewn on them, his lips and teeth purple from chewing betel. When my mother paid him the money, he looked over our heads and told the two men behind us in line to stand aside.

I heard one of them ask, “What do you mean there’s not enough room for a man?”

The taxi man answered him in a voice too low for me to hear.

My mother, gathering her long wrap to the side, was the first to climb onto the metal step, into the back. Still on her knees, she turned to me. That was the last time I saw her in full light.

I lifted one of the wooden statues to her and then the other. She set them down, then reached to wrap her hand around my forearm, helping me up as I climbed in. She was strong from doing men’s work. I was embarrassed as soon as I entered the shelter because I saw another woman my mother’s age and two girls with lovely faces, dressed in festival clothing.

Narrow benches lined both sides of the compartment. Even after I sat, I needed to bend my head under the ceiling of the box. No, the space wasn’t tall enough for a man. We should have been suspicious of this.

“Is that the Road Guardian?” asked the woman seated across from us, nodding toward the statue.

“Yes, we are bringing him back to our house to assist the Buddha,” my mother answered.

“The Buddha will welcome him,” the woman said. “And it is good in these times to travel with a guardian.”

It was my grandmother’s wish that we bring these statues back from the festival in the mountains, one to guard the road and the Water Father for the lake where we lived.

The back gate of the truck was the only opening, and it cast a rectangle of light across our knees and feet. I was most aware of the older girl because she was a young woman, but it was the younger girl who, in the dim light, smiled at me. Her eyes sidled down with a secretive pleasure, and she leaned forward so that the light shone on her yellow blouse.

I saw then, protruding from between the buttons of her blouse, the tiniest round face of an infant monkey. His eyes had the filmy look of a newborn and his head lolled to the side. She put her finger to the opening in his lips and his little cheeks hollowed and tried to fill.

Mary LaChapelle is author of House of Heroes and Other Stories and recipient of the Katherine Anne Porter, PEN/Nelson Algren and Whiting Foundation Awards, as well as fellowships from NYFA, Hedgebrook, Edward Albee and Bush foundations. She teaches at Sarah Lawrence College.

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