The Sugargun Fairy
Even as a child, Stalin Rani bore a striking resemblance to brown wrapping
paper. Her body was flat and foldable, her face littered with creases that
curled into different shapes when she stood in the sun. Her birth had been
celebrated with the bursting of four small firecrackers, three of which never
She began life by crawling along the sagging walls of her house, poking her
toes into corners and listening to her father climb the ranks of the local
Communist Party. In the afternoons she sat under a table and assigned colors
and shapes to the different voices she heard. Some were dark grey and hard
like wet cement. Others were oily and brownish orange like stale halva.
When she was six, a tall twitchy man named Shoebox Uncle came from London to
stay with them. He had a broken jaw and a grubby mess of gauze that was wound
around his face like a scarf. He completely ignored Stalin Ranis existence
and spent most of his time listening to an old radio. Then one day he turned
You have a terrible name—what is it again, I have forgotten.
Queen Stalin. Thats almost an oxymoron. Do you know what an oxymoron
Do you know what a moron is? Your father, for example, is a moron for
naming you Stalin Rani.
“Were you really in London?”
“Why, were you?”
What was it like?
London was filled with rain and sugarplum fairies. They had runny skin
and carried pink candy guns around their necks. Every Sunday I would go out and
collect them in my shoebox. Sugarplums with sugarguns. Say it, sugarplums with
Sugarflums with sugargums.
Sugarguns with sugarguns. Here, he said, shoving a thick black shoebox
into her stomach. If you ever find any, you can keep them in this.
The box smelled like wood and old honey. Stalin Rani pictured tiny fairies
crouched in the corners, their skin puddling into pools between their toes.
She imagined them waiting for the lid to fall back so they could shoot Shoebox
Uncle in the jaw.
* * *
The shoebox contained endless possibilities and Stalin Rani often thought of
the things that could be inside if they had the chance. She saw it brimming
with sharpened purple pencils or yellow frogs with legs that kept getting tangled
together. Sometimes she imagined it filled with milk white erasers stacked
like bricks. One day she discovered a tiny wing inside.
Is this from a Sugargun fairy? she asked, holding it out on her forefinger.
Shoebox Uncle frowned and twitched.
Cant be sure. Put it in your mouth.
Stalin Rani placed it on her tongue and a sour pinprick ran through her teeth.
Is it like a spoonful of sugar? he asked.
She shook her head.
Can you say supercalifragilisticexpialidocious? Backwards?
Then it was probably from a fly, said Shoebox Uncle.
* * *
The next morning Stalin Rani awoke and the universe stretched over her eyes
like a piece of orange bubble gum. She saw a crack in the cosmic egg, elephants
mating in a thunderstorm and a broken toilet. She coughed until something hard
and black lurched out of her mouth.
Its a revelation, said Shoebox Uncle Put it in your mouth.
It came out of my mouth.
Put it in your shoebox then.
Stalin Rani began bringing one up every morning. Soon the shoebox was filled
How come you dont have them? she asked.
I do, I just dont spit them out.
Why do I have to keep them in the shoebox? How come I cant just throw
Because everyone must keep a box of things they dont understand and cant
* * *
The shoebox could only hold so many revelations. At the end of every month,
Stalin Rani took them to a nearby canal and tossed them in, one by one. Shoebox
Uncle came with her and leaned against the railing cracking his neck, wrists,
knuckles and then his neck again.
“Careful you don’t hit any fairies,” he said.
“I thought you said they lived in London.”
“I have a feeling I brought a few over. Something was tugging at the back
of my head in the plane.”
“There’s this girl Mahalakshmi in my class who had so many lice her
mother poured DDT on her head and all her hair fell out.”
“You just hit one on the head.”
“Fairy. Watch where you’re throwing.”
Stalin Rani scanned the murky water, looking for an arm or a tattered set of
wings. Shoebox Uncle was making a crackling sound with his jaw.
“Is it OK?” asked Stalin Rani. He yawned and frowned.
“I think you gave it a concussion.”
* * *
By the time Stalin Rani started school Shoebox Uncle had taken to sitting in
the yard for hours at a stretch, staring at the ground with his mouth open.
He showed no interest in her Chinese fountain pen or her collection of gold
and silver cigarette foils. On Sundays she would sit on the floor and watch
him to see if he was up to something. Sometimes she would poke him in the arm.
“What are you doing?” she would ask.
“I’m catching flies.”
Once she watched a fly crawl along his cheek and climb up the side of his nose.
It stretched its hind legs and rearranged its wings while Shoebox Uncle breathed
noisily through his mouth. Stalin Rani clapped her hands and the fly disappeared
into the white sky like a spot of ink.
After that she stopped watching him.
* * *
Time passed very slowly in Stalin Rani’s house. It collected in the corners
and clung to people’s heels if they stood in one place for too long.
It occurred to Stalin Rani that if she stayed any longer, she too would collect
in the corners. Her voice would become colorless and cling to the walls like
After failing the tenth grade and passing her typing exam, Stalin Rani decided
to leave. By then she hardly saw Shoebox Uncle at all. He had been relegated
to the back room of the house, where he spent most of his time twitching and
staring at the floor. When her suitcase was packed she went to his room and
poked him in the arm.
“I’m leaving,” she said. “Do you want your shoebox back?”
Stalin Rani watched him twitch, first shoulder, then head, then shoulder again.
She waited an hour for him to say something.
And then she left.
* * *
The next three years were spent sharing a room with a spider-like girl named
Malli and typing out reports in the cramped quarters of Gnanasekaran’s
DTPXerox and Publics Phone Stall Shop. On weekends she wrote postcards to her
uncle that she arranged in chronological order on the bottom of her suitcase.
One day a tattered blue envelope appeared under her door. It was from her father.
He said he was pained that she had left so abruptly and hadnt even bothered
to call. He was surviving, even though he had so many troubles, the least of
which was the humiliation of having a runaway daughter (who he had to track
down like a common criminal) but he did not mind because he was only worried
about her well-being and hoped she would come to her senses soon and return
If she would not come home, would she at least return the shoebox she had stolen
from her uncle. It was one thing, he said, to steal from a normal, healthy
person. It was quite another to steal from a penniless idiot who was living
off the kind-heartedness and generosity of a brother who barely had enough
to keep body and soul together. Would she please return the blasted thing because
the idiotbastard kept screaming for it like he had demons lodged in his backside
and the neighborhood was beginning to think very badly of her long-suffering
Or would she send it by post if she was very busy.
* * *
That night Stalin Rani dreamed of angry claws scuttling and snipping at the
door of her old house. Shoebox Uncle was standing in the rain, his eyes covered
by two yellow moths. He coughed and the moths fluttered and settled, shaking
the rain from their furry backs.
I asked you, she said. I asked if you wanted the shoebox back
and you didnt say anything.
A puff of tiny, transparent wings flew out of his mouth and hovered in front
of Stalin Ranis face. She saw the rain soaking through the moths, dissolving
them into streaks of dirty yellow that ran down her uncle’s face. That
morning there was no revelation—just a thin trickle of black spit crawling
down her chin.
* * *
Malli seemed the most excited about Stalin Ranis trip back home. After
ducking out of her house to avoid an arranged marriage, Malli made it a point
her home once a month flaunting a handbag and wearing cheap sunglasses.
Here,” she said. “Let those country fruits see that youre
a career woman now and you cant be bullied.
The handbag was large and flabby and reminded Stalin Rani of the women she
sat beside on the bus. She shoved the shoebox inside and made her way down
the stairs to the street.
Hey!Malli called after her. Make sure you come back! Thats
my only handbag!
* * *
Stalin Rani’s old house seemed to have stretched in all directions. Balconies
and sit-outs had sprouted in awkward corners like pistachio-colored tumors.
Two scooters stood in front of the door and a mess of bicycles lay tangled
against the wall. The communist flag that had hung by the porch for so many
years was missing.
Wheres the flag? she asked as she entered.
Look at this, said her father, getting up from his reclining chair. After
five years she finally comes to see me and she asks where the flag is—what
Have you switched sides?
She comes back after seven years and doesnt even ask about my failing
health or how I have suffered, barely keeping body and soul together—where
are you going?
To return his shoebox.
* * *
Unlike the rest of the house, the back room seemed to have contracted. The
walls that hadnt caved in were being held up by broken furniture and
bundles of moldering communist pamphlets. Shoebox Uncle sat in the middle of
and drooling, his eyes obscured by milky cataracts.
Here, said Stalin Rani, shoving the shoebox into his lap. He pushed
off the lid and ran his fingers over the revelations piled inside. Then he picked
one up and began breaking it into small pieces.
I heard it buzzing, he said. Its caught in a corner, I
Stalin Rani watched the revelations snap between his fingers and wondered why
she had never thought of doing that.
Whats caught in a corner? she asked.
Cant you hear it?"
“Don’t be an ass,” he said and slipped a piece into her limp
See if you can lure it out.”
The broken revelation was black all the way through. For some reason she had
thought they would be white inside.
“You said I hit a Sugargun fairy when I was throwing these into the canal
Plum. Sugarplum fairy."
You said Sugargun."
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“You told me they were called Sugargun fairies.”
I did not, there are no such things as Sugargun fairies. And you killed
that one, by the way."
“You said I gave it a concussion.”
“You killed it. You made them cry for three nights and four days, I heard
Stalin Rani remembered scanning the water and seeing nothing but black algae
and cigarette butts. She remembered sleeping away from the window so the fairies
couldn’t come and beat her with their shiny, angry wings at night.
It’s a wasp, she said, folding the empty handbag into four
and tucking it under her arm.
“You didn’t even look.”
“Yes, I did.”
“It’s a wasp.”
* * *
That evening Stalin Rani sat on her bed and tried to remember what her uncle’s
voice used to sound like when she was younger. She couldn’t remember
if it was a muffled, sour bread voice or a thin, cracked one that dripped down
the walls like a broken egg. She couldn’t remember what color it was
She pulled her suitcase out from under her bed and took out all the postcards
she had written to him. Their edges were soft and fuzzy— some were already
dividing into two or three sheets at the corners. One had separated into five
pieces, each curled back and waiting for something to happen.
Stalin Rani opened her window and felt the sunset and purple diesel fumes color
her lips. The evening was settling in a cloak of incense, burning oil, and
songs that wove in and out of a broken radio. She realized that she had never
Shoebox Uncle’s voice a color at all. Maybe it was something she never
got around to.
The postcards fell from the window in soft, jagged pieces, scattering onto
the road like flowers on a dirty river.
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