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Contemporary Fiction

It was called the No Man’s Land, and what it was, was the alleyway between the house gardens of Mrs. Clakes and Mrs. Milte. It was named so by one of them; exactly who named it was long forgotten. It was named a long time ago, and that it was later mutually agreed upon was all that was remembered.

This story is about that alleyway and the two women who named it, and who have hated each other since long before it was given a name.

“All wars are personal,” Mr. Clakes used to say when he was still alive. And he was a man of war; he knew about such things. So, Mrs. Clakes had always understood that Mrs. Milte was not above personal animosity. And when Mrs. Milte had reported her to the society committee, complaining about Mrs. Clakes’ earsplitting violin, saying that it was the most horrendous sound she had ever heard, Mrs. Clakes marked her as musically stunted and thoroughly envious. Because Mr. Clakes had always loved her music, and no one in the entire neighborhood had had a problem with it but exasperating, old, Mrs. Milte.

Or at least, she thought that Mrs. Milte had. Because Mrs. Clakes remembered playing the violin, and then she remembered not playing the violin. What else could have made her want to stop? Surely, it had to be Mrs. Milte and her inability to appreciate euphonious music. Surely, it had to be.

Mr. Milte had been a man of war as well. And, not unlike Mr. Clakes, he had once been very much alive. “Horses are wasted on war,” Mr. Milte used to say.

And indeed, they were. Majestic beings, they were. Meant to run through fields of wheat, carrying upon their slender backs messengers who carried messages of love in their brown sacks. Mrs. Milte remembered still the old days, the days before the war. Mr. Milte had sent her many such letters, in the sacks of many such messengers, riding on the backs of many such horses, running through many such fields of wheat.

And disrespecting horses was an abhorrent offense; it was a declaration of war. So, when Mrs. Clakes had convinced the committee to remove her beautiful Love from the neighborhood, Mrs. Milte declared war on Mrs. Clakes. No one in the neighborhood had hated the horse but petty, whiny, Mrs. Clakes.

Or at least, she thought that Mrs. Clakes had. Because Mrs. Milte remembered owning a white horse, and then she remembered not owning one. Surely, it had to be Mrs. Clakes’ doing. What other reason could she have to hate her? Surely, it had to be.

But what did it matter? Violin or no violin; horse or no horse. These were practical women; they weren’t ones to waste time wondering about inane things like the nature of the world, the constructs of morality, and the beginnings of wars. Such things were better left to those otherwise unemployed.

Wars were wars. That was enough.

And all wars have soldiers. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that your neighbors’ kids make perfect soldiers. They come in different shapes and sizes, and are adroit at thinking up new ways to infuriate adults. Also, kids are smart people; they know that when you get a bar of chocolate to toss a bucket of paint at a house, you toss that paint and eat that chocolate.

Mrs. Clakes was the first to enlist a soldier. It had happened after a particularly long committee meeting, during which Mrs. Milte had droned on and on about the garbage bags strewn across the No Man’s Land, and how she suspected Mrs. Clakes. As if Mrs. Clakes had no concern for propriety herself; as if Mrs. Clakes had no self-respect. How dare Mrs. Milte accuse her of littering her own alleyway!

However, she remained passive. She promised to look into the matter, smiling and nodding, and decided to wait for an opportunity to present itself.

The opportunity was called Jules; a bright ten-year-old from the western district. Her parents had invited Mrs. Clakes over to dine with them twice. And though she didn’t care much for their western spices, one didn’t decline a second dinner invitation; it gave the impression that the first wasn’t enjoyed. Sometimes one had to be dishonest to be polite. And being polite was always proper.

So, when Mrs. Clakes invited them over one evening, they were glad to come. Mrs. Clakes hoped they’d appreciate the superiority of her food, and surely their sated smiles were proof enough. She wondered if they were simply being polite, but only briefly.

After supper came sweets, because that was the proper order of dining.

“Oh, I’d kill for these!” said Jules, gorging on the coconut barfi.

“Jules! Language!” her mother said. Looking at Mrs. Clakes, she continued, “Kids these days! Say the meanest … things.”

“Sorry, mama.”

“It’s quite all right,” said Mrs. Clakes, who was watching her intently, a war general surfacing in her mind. “Quite all right.”

The next morning, a most curious incident befell their neighborhood. A pile of cow dung materialized on Mrs. Milte’s doorstep, and later found its way up the outsole of her flip-flops.

There were no cows in their neighborhood; as pets, only dogs, cats, hamsters, and frogs were allowed. So, every head was scratched that morning for the same reason.

The dog owners blamed the cats; the cat owners blamed the dogs. The priest blamed the witches. And Mrs. Milte secretly blamed Mrs. Clakes. But she lacked proof, and she couldn’t accuse her without it. One can throw around proofless accusations at one’s enemy, but one has to be careful. One accusation too many and others would stop believing you. So, she simply smiled and shook her head, clenched though her fists were.

After the excitement of the incident had passed, and the priest had uttered a prayer, people started clearing out. Mrs. Milte, armed with thick plastic gloves, set to clean up her doorstep.

Her head snapped up. She was sure she had seen Mrs. Clakes standing at her window. She sighed and promised the cow dung that she would get back to Mrs. Clakes for it. Before that day, it had been simple committee politics. One would shoot down the ideas put forth by the other, along with an occasional complaint or two. But this was most preposterous! The very evidence of impropriety!

“Shame what you have to do, Mrs. Milte.”

She looked up. It was a Hanaday kid. Ruff Hanaday, the youngest of five. His parents were idle too often.

“What’s it to you, boy? Scamper!”

“No, but really.” He walked up to her steps, smiling. “They teach us about stuff like this in school.”

“They teach cleaning up cow shit in school these days? Education has gone down.”

“Tsk. No, they teach us about justice and molarity.”

“You mean morality, boy.”

“Same thing. Mrs. Milte, they teach us that the person who makes the mess should be the one to clean it up.”

“You know that cow, boy?”

“It wasn’t the cow’s fault!”

She knitted her brows. “Whose fault is it, then?”

He smiled as smugly as it was possible for a twelve-year-old boy to smile, which was a lot. “They also teach us about trade.”

The very next morning a pile of cow dung had snuck up to Mrs. Clakes’ doorstep. And later, her nightgown. This time, the priest almost fainted. “The cow dung witch’s back!” he proclaimed. “She shall soil all our doors!”

“Oh, I doubt it,” said Mrs. Milte, standing on her porch. “I think having painted Mrs. Clakes' lovely door, she shall stay put. What do you think, Mrs. Clakes?”

“Oh, I don’t know much about witches. But I’ve heard they can be very stubborn when crossed. I’ll pray for your door tonight, Mrs. Milte.”

“And I, yours, Mrs. Clakes.”

Thus began a new phase of their war. Along with politicking, they now employed trusted and efficient soldiers. Cow dung, acrylic paints, ropes painted to look like snakes, and many such weapons were deployed, and deployed often.

Mrs. Clakes and Mrs. Milte were too proud to admit that they loved this new form of warfare far more. War wasn't something to be loved, but these attacks were curiously familiar, and enjoying familiarity was still proper—it was, in fact, the basis of modern society.

And the kids of the neighborhood were having the time of their lives. They were being paid in sweets to be mischievous, and it is understood in all parts of the world that sweets and mischief are objects of primary concern for kids everywhere.

But there were sweets you ate and sweets you didn’t; any kid worth their bucket of paint understood that. For example, when you happened upon a box full of cookies lying abandoned in the No Man’s Land, you stayed away from it no matter how clean the box seemed to be. The No Man’s Land had a magic of its own. And there were witches roaming about, at least that’s what the priest said. One had to stay vigilant during times like these.

And when, on the next morning, you found a piece of cake where the box had been, you were to smell it but only from a distance. Magic that turned cookies into cake, who knew what it would do to kids? Turn them into adults?

“I saw a Christmas cake last night,” said Jules, who was now the leader of Mrs. Clakes’ army. She was now a teenager, and still conducted most of her assignments for coconut barfi. Old habits rarely died. She was sitting with her friends in the society park, tired after a long day’s play and warfare. Soldiers from both armies occupied the park benches.

“It was Christmas yesterday,” said little Anz, who was the newest recruit on Mrs. Milte’s army.

“It turned to a basket of fruits this morning,” said Ruff Hanaday, who was now the leader of Mrs. Milte’s army, and had two younger sisters. “I saw it myself.”

Kia, who had moved to the neighborhood the year before, asked, “What kind of magic turns cake to fruit?”

“The worst kind,” said Anz.

“You ever wonder what does it, though?” asked Jules.

“Magic, of course!” said Kia.

“No, no. Really.”

Ruff looked at her, puzzled. “You don’t believe in magic, Jules?”

“I’ve grown out of it.”

“I hope I never grow out of magic,” said Anz. “Magic does the exchange! And witches!”

Jules snorted. “Please! Even the priest has stopped blabbering about the witches. No, I think there’s something else at work here.”

“Wizards?” suggested Kia.

“They’re the same thing.”

“No, they’re not,” said Ruff. “I read it in a book.”

The armies broke out into chuckles.

“I did! It said that wizards can’t … marry.”

Jules raised an eyebrow. “You’re fit to be a wizard, then, Ruff.”

Everyone cracked up at that; Anz rolled down from the bench and onto the grass, laughing boisterously as ever.

Ruff’s jaw dropped, and his eyebrows knitted close together. “Hey!”

Jules started to laugh too; that made him smile. He couldn’t help it; he loved the way she laughed.

When everyone else had gone, Jules and Ruff sat watching the sunset; it was something they often did.

“I do wonder, though,” said Ruff.

“About the No Man’s Land?” said Jules. “I told you I don’t believe in magic anymore.”

“No, not that. I wonder about this war of ours. Mrs. Clakes and Mrs. Milte. I wonder what started it?”

“Ah, I don’t know. I don’t think anyone knows. Mom told me that they had been fighting since before we moved to the neighborhood.”

Ruff looked at her. “Yeah, since before I was born. Sometimes—they’ve been fighting for so long—sometimes, I think even they don’t remember what started it.”

Jules looked back at him. “Wonder why they keep fighting then?”

“All this time, they’ve been fighting. I think … they don’t know anything else.”

They sat in silence for a few heartbeats.

Then, Jules asked, “You think they love each other?”

Ruff snorted. “Love? They’re at war!”

“Well, so are we.”

Heat rose to his face, and the red flush in his cheeks appeared crimson in the waning sun. Jules remembered how beautiful he was. She held his hand in hers, their fingers interlaced. And, thus they remained long after the sun had set, until their phones buzzed at once. Another attack from both sides. Sharing one soft kiss, the lovers separated to go to war.

The kids of the neighborhood were correct, after a fashion. And so was the neighborhood priest. For, the No Man’s Land truly was a magical place, and witches were, in fact, at work there.

They had been at work for years upon years. Ever since one had stopped playing the violin, and the other had started to miss her beautiful horse.

Or something like that. Really, what does it matter?

“What does it matter?” said Mrs. Clakes to no one, as she set a pizza to bake in her microwave oven. “Chicken or turkey, who cares?”

She went into her living room and sat in her sofa chair. She turned on the television, and surfed through the channels; all were broadcasting New Year’s Eve specials. People were happy all around the world. Well, good for them. There was an enormous traffic jam somewhere in the city. Well, they deserved it.

She turned the television off. There was never anything good on it these days. “And especially not today!”

She stomped back to the kitchen. The pizza was still in the microwave, turning. The tears that enveloped her eyes surprised even her. “My Leta cares,” she whispered. “She likes chicken.”

Her knees gave in—her body had been giving in a lot lately—and she fell to the kitchen floor, her fingers gripping the countertop for balance it did not offer. The thought of her body giving in only intensified her want for Leta. Sweet Leta. Would she see her one last time before her body gave in for good?

Mrs. Clakes tried to stand back up, for it was highly improper for a woman at war to lie on the floor, but her legs would not obey. They were shaking, in defiance or in weakness, she didn’t know. And so, she sat there, her mind playing and replaying the few memories she had of little Leta. How that one time she had grabbed her ring finger with that little hand of hers. How that one time she had cried so loud through the night, that Mrs. Milte had left a copious amount of cow dung on her doorstep the next morning. And beside that was a small paper bag, with a small gift box inside it. A pacifier, it had been.

Mrs. Clakes smiled. The morning after that, there had been a stroller at her doorstep, and no cow dung that time. Her smile disappeared, for the tears would come whether she wanted them to or not. And so, she wailed. Pressing a hand over her mouth, biting into that hand, she wailed. Even this year, her son had failed to come home. It was too much trouble, he had said. People got only so many long weekends these days; it was hard to find the time, he had said.

But he was too young to understand the nature of time. And Mrs. Clakes wasn’t one to ponder over such things, but when your granddaughter grows up faster than you can blink, you can’t help but think of a thing or two to say to this Time person. “Oh, just one more time. Please.”

The oven dinged. Wiping at her mouth, she swallowed hard. Her throat hurt, and a buzz meandered over her body, making her feel number and colder than ever. She tried standing up, but what would have been the point? She wasn’t even hungry. She doubted if she’d ever be hungry again.

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Three raps at the door. Pause. Three raps more.

Had she been too loud, or had Mrs. Milte’s daughter not shown up either? Either way, she had to answer it. Propriety was at stake.

She grabbed the edge of the countertop and pulled herself up. She washed her face at the kitchen sink, walked up to the door, and opened it. She walked down the steps that led to her house and into her garden, toward the No Man’s Land. There, in the middle of the alleyway between the two houses, was a plate. And on that plate, was a big piece of chocolate pie. Smiling, Mrs. Clakes picked it up and went back inside.

She put the pie on her dining table, and removed the pizza from the oven. Then, she went over to the refrigerator and took out the cake batter she had prepared for Leta. She put it in the oven and ate her pizza, waiting for the cake to bake.

Later that night, she went up to Mrs. Milte’s house and signaled her arrival. While going back, she left a piece of Leta’s cake in the No Man’s Land. She watched from her window as Mrs. Milte picked the cake up, and sat down in the garden. That was a kind woman, a worthy opponent.

A few minutes later, they were both sitting in their gardens, talking to each other over the No Man’s Land; one eating pie, the other eating cake. For the night, like so many before, they declared a ceasefire. There were important things to be discussed, like how the city was no place to live in, how the television showed nothing worth watching these days, and how Mr. Clakes and Mr. Milte had escaped their clutches way too soon. And other such things that two old friends could speak of only when the night had been around for a while.

War could wait.

July 08, 2022 17:42

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3 comments

Eliza Entwistle
18:28 Jul 14, 2022

I really liked this story. It was good writing that flowed well, with elements of humor mixed in. I especially liked the incorporation of the magical themes and referring to the two as witches. I thought you used the prompt fittingly and gave it a sweet ending. The story reminded me of the neighborhood rivalry in A Man Called Ove (if you haven't read it, you'll probably enjoy it). This was a great read! Good luck in the competition.

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Mavis Webster
23:13 Jul 13, 2022

I really enjoyed your story! Below, I listed two of my favorite lines: "And the kids of the neighborhood were having the time of their lives. They were being paid in sweets to be mischievous, and it is understood in all parts of the world that sweets and mischief are objects of primary concern for kids everywhere." "This time, the priest almost fainted. “The cow dung witch’s back!” he proclaimed. “She shall soil all our doors!”' I also liked the dynamic between Ruff and Jules, the sweet teenage romance (that had a bit of a Romeo/Juliet vi...

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12:13 Jul 14, 2022

Thanks a lot for your kind words! I'm honestly so glad you enjoyed it! PS Ruff and Jules weren't based off of Romeo and Juliet--hadn't even thought of it--but hey, if the shoe fits!

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