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Quail With A Topknot

Story by Sudha Balagopal (Read author interview) September 28, 2020

Art by Sabine Meyer

“There’s a bird in the library,” I tell the librarian. The university employee has thin, penciled brows and a nest of brown hair.

I place the encyclopedia on her desk. With an unsteady hand I show her the wet splatter of bird dropping—an irregular stain on the information about polling methods. “I need this material for class.”

“Maybe where you’re from, birds come into libraries. Not in Arizona.” Her red-tipped finger indicates the closed windows of the air-conditioned building.

I want to tell her in Calcutta I paid a membership fee to read books about America, that the owner of the corner library kept his windows open, that a myna family lived in the nook above the front door, that he fed them tiny pieces of mango and guava, that they didn’t come in. He also fined me if I  damaged a book.

She moves the offending encyclopedia away from herself with one finger, studies my embroidered orange kurta, the color of the robes worn by the Hare Krishnas singing in unrecognizable Hindi on the lawn outside. At home, when they roamed Park Street, Amma told me to keep a safe distance.

I spot Theo in the library. He doesn’t walk up to the counter to say hello, or tell her I’m a friend.

“What am I supposed to do?” I ask.

“Have you looked through the card catalog? Microfiche reader?”

I ask her for help with the machine. She says she cannot leave her desk.


“A little quail with a topknot, ” I want to tell Theo, “defiles the book, then hops into my backpack like he’s home.”

Theo is the neighbor with whom I share a wall, against which I lay my ear each evening so I can listen to Dan Rather on his television. Sometimes, I hear Theo laugh when he watches Three’s Company. Sometimes, I hear him on the phone, low and intimate. Sometimes, I hear him pop a cassette into his player. Sometimes, Endless Love and Celebration seep into my apartment.

This is the man who calls himself an eternal student―he’s going for his fourth degree―the man who offered me coffee, a ride to the store.

A bit of excrement lands on my shirt because I cannot look away as Theo kisses a girl in the aisle between library stacks, because I’m drawn to his muscled arms on either side of her as she rests against books, because I’m staring at the girl with big hair, tan legs, short-shorts and cork-heeled shoes. Because I’m wondering how it feels to be kissed like that.


“This bird made a mess on my research,” I tell Dr. E during office hours. The professor wears a blue-and-maroon checked  jacket. The crease of his khaki pants is as sharp as an envelope slitter.

His pink tongue darts out, moistening his lips. When he palms my lower back, I freeze. He refused to accept my last assignment because it was handwritten, even though I’m a foreign student who doesn’t own a typewriter. I received a zero―my first quarter at the university off to a bad start.

“That’s a better excuse than my dog ate the homework,” he says.

At home, the milkman’s goats would chew up the newspaper on our doorstep. My Amma says only goats eat paper. Amma also says marriageable girls should not go abroad for further studies. As I leave Dr. E’s office, the department secretary hands me a message slip. “You had a call from a . . . Mrs. Pai’s son? Number’s here.”


“Do you live by a henhouse?” Mrs. Pai’s son says on the phone.

The quail squawks louder on my lap.

“He’s my bird,” I say, stressing the possessive.

Mrs. Pai’s son is the man Amma’s set me up with. She can’t understand why I won’t accept her highly suitable choices―three so far―can’t understand why marriage and a degree won’t happen simultaneously.

I don’t ask how Mrs. Pai’s son tracked me down. Maybe I should admire his initiative. Maybe Amma knows best. Maybe he’ll kiss me like Theo kissed that girl between the stacks.

“Noisy bird!” Mrs. Pai’s son says. “Can you get him to shut up?”

I put the animal on the floor, cover him with my laundry basket.

Mrs. Pai’s son says he’d like to see my photograph.

I tell him I’m behind on my paper.

He doesn’t offer to mail me his picture. Instead, he talks at length about his job at a chip-making company in California, “Not the kind you eat, heh, heh.”

I pop bits of apple through the holes in my upside-down laundry basket. Inside the makeshift cage, my bird beats his wings, screaks.

Maybe Theo has an ear against his wall, maybe he’s listening to the bird’s shrill sounds, this conversation. Maybe he’ll pop over, ask to hold him.

“I’m going to India on vacation,” Mrs. Pai’s son says. “My mother wants a Walkman. I told her I don’t have time to go shopping.”

The bird’s frantic. Mrs. Pai’s son is still talking when I hang up.

I lift the laundry basket, cradle my quail, caress his restless wings.

About the Author

Sudha Balagopal’s writing appears in CRAFT, Split Lip, and Smokelong Quarterly, among other journals. Her novella-in-flash, Things I Can’t Tell Amma, was published by Ad Hoc fiction in 2021. Her full-length flash collection is forthcoming from Alternating Current Press in 2024. She has had stories included in Best Microfiction, The Best Small Fictions, and the Wigleaf Top 50 award anthologies. More at www.sudhabalagopal.com

About the Artist

Throughout the early ’80’s, Sabine Meyer gained experience as a freelance photographer in Berlin, Germany. She later expanded her skills in Milan, Italy, working alongside Gianni Baggi as a photo assistant in his commercial advertising photography studio. She proceeded to undertake various assignments such as still life, industrial reportage, portraiture and fashion; in addition, she began collaborating with the German production ClassicConcept for video productions. Currently living in Ascoli Piceno, Italy, she’s mainly working in reportage and Fine Art photography. She’s a member of the European Artgroup Frequenzen e.V. and has had exhibitions in Germany, Italy, Malta, Spain, France, Finland, Hungary and Austria.

This story appeared in Issue Sixty-Nine of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Sixty-Nine

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