Lay Low

Photography by Peter Lindbergh

“Lay low awhile.”
Din of grungy mahjong slot machines, smoke thick as port-town smog, slurps of Chongqing hot noodle soup
Watery lager, grease stains, and spit riddled the cement floor,
For the right price she could decipher them too —
“Too many eyes on you and this,”
Boss held up her coveted notebook: reason for month-long interrogation in satellite communist country
“Get out for now, go to some small town in the States. No one pays attention there. Have a couple kids, work at, say, a Christian camp–”
“христианский лагерь!”
Had she understood “Christian camp” correctly?
What did that have to do with her?
She didn’t want to get mixed up with Jesus people and a language too foreign and strange even for her to ever learn
And she sure as hell didn’t want to go to America.
But in robotic servility she ended up trading
Revolvers and reconnaissance for rebozos and religion —
“We’ll be in touch. Just don’t forget who you work for.”

A snap back to present time with those words and smell of burning cassoulet on stovetop,
Pet dog whining at back door
Those words haunted her, as they hadn’t been in touch and she had forgotten.
School board meetings and Sunday morning contralto hymn-singing now,
She profoundly lost sight of her mission
Saturated in domestic duties, fat folds of babies’ soft skin, perennial blooms in her mountain garden, she’d forgotten how dangerous she and her billion-dollar secrets were to enemy’s agenda.
Though she’d ripped out crucial translations before handing object of world’s lust over to Boss, those pages years ago torn up in unsupervised toddler tactile learning moment, and though she’d memorized the codes when she thought she was going to be buried alive in the Laotian jungle–
Those faraway mantras now blended with improvised lullabies
Had they gotten what they’d wanted all along as they spun like wisps of ghost on the periphery as she held a naked baby on her hip staring out at the paper-thin poppies shuddering in the wind?

©2018, Amaya Engleking

Written for Björn’s narrative poetry prompt at dVerse.

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32 comments

  1. danielpaulmarshall · January 30

    The packed imagery of this piece was a joy. The opening reminded me a lot of where i live in Korea. Maybe trade the Majong slots for Karaoke bars & fishing tackle store houses where men sit necking soju & smoking strong cigarettes.

    • Gospel Isosceles · February 2

      Oh, those KTV clubs I know a bit too well too. Even in China they were mostly flooded with K-pop, though I couldn’t name one star. When I did sing in Chinese I preferred long Buddhist mantras, and the rest of my party boo’ed. “This is my grandparents’ music!”

  2. pvcann · January 30

    I could hear the tiles clicking, and I could smell the place, and yearning in this is powerful

  3. megtheintrovert · January 30

    Hi! I’ve nominated you for a Liebster Award because I think your blog is wonderful! Here’s the link with all the information you need. Happy blogging! http://www.megtheintrovert.com/2018/01/31/the-liebster-awards/

  4. Diana · January 31

    You are such a story teller, skillfully crafting vivid scenes in my mind’s eye. Your mere mention of soup had me pull over and grab some hot and sour soup on the way home from work. This means I would be in trouble if your next piece mentions a woman jumping from a cliff. I’m a fan… ❤

    • Gospel Isosceles · February 2

      Haha, if you like h+s, you’d die for Chongqing noodles, though preferably not jumping off a cliff for them;)

      • Diana · February 2

        I’d sacrifice the lining of my gut though, in a moment of gluten induced intoxications haha!

        • Gospel Isosceles · February 2

          And don’t forget the MSG. It’s worse than salt and pepper over there; they garnish by the spoonful.

          • Diana · February 2

            Now I’m salivating and have an arrhythmia from the chemicals 😱

  5. Jay Kaushal · February 1

    You’re going great! Keep going.

  6. stolzyblog · September 27

    vivid. the jobs people can have…

  7. Björn Rudberg (brudberg) · September 27

    This is marvelous… the way I imagine the exciting world she was leaving for an undercover of normality that feels as deep as six feet under… in the end I wonder if the mission really mattered, maybe Boss is gone.

  8. sarahsouthwest · September 27

    The accumulation of detail is great. The atmosphere is so noir.

  9. kim881 · September 27

    What a story, Amaya! Very cinematic. I love the way you paint the scene in the lines:
    ‘Din of grungy mahjong slot machines, smoke thick as port-town smog, slurps of Chongqing hot noodle soup
    Watery lager, grease stains, and spit riddled the cement floor’
    and how the sense of danger and intrigue switches to the normality of the ‘smell of burning cassoulet on stovetop’ and
    ‘School board meetings and Sunday morning contralto hymn-singing’ and the ‘faraway mantras now blended with improvised lullabies’. The final lines are stunning.

  10. Glenn Buttkus · September 27

    Jus wow–your vivd descriptive style puts us nose-deep into the world of your narrative; so very exotic–part Mickey Spillane, part James Bond. This was superb writing; makes me anxious to see what the others have come up with.

  11. Singledust · September 27

    the most unsuspecting women lead dangerous and sinister secret lives. a little escape into fantasy or part biographical, whichever it does not really matter, you piece here speaks to a woman’s soul too long saturated with the ordinary. I absolutely loved this, a short story of its own Amaya, you have a brilliant mind.

  12. V.J. Knutson · September 27

    Powerful story – described so well. So glad she escaped to a better life, although such trauma never leave.

  13. rothpoetry · September 27

    An interesting story! Sounds like she worked for the CIA.

  14. Harry Miller · September 27

    I really do like this.

  15. Frank Hubeny · September 28

    Nice descriptive use of “saturated”: “She profoundly lost sight of her mission
    Saturated in domestic duties”

  16. Vivian Zems · September 28

    Wow!……..Iike… like, like this! The life of a spy is never straight-forward.

  17. lynn__ · September 28

    Fabulous piece! Honestly, give me the naked baby on the hip and contralto in church 😉

  18. memadtwo · September 28

    The atmospheric contrast is wonderful. (K)

  19. Brendan · September 29

    My wife and I watched a so-so documentary on Kim Philby last week, the famous British secret agent who moled for the Russians for decades, hiding in plain sight, so to speak — in his career he was sidelined after almost getting exposed by the FBI; he survived that with a long station in Beirut, waiting for the Russians to contact him again. Drinking, womanizing, observing his patriots, nursing a secret hatred of the British upper class — Anyway this narrative pulses beneath its surfaces, pulling a few details into a dark and complex understory. Brilliant contrast in the two stanzas – To be endangered in the open far away then in deep cover in the familiar; that’s a juxtaposition which lends the smoky noir undervibe. The fleeting metaphor of paper and notebooks, recorded and torn and scattered, of mission that may be yet intact or have long been ghosted, that’s such a wild tension here, left hanging like poppies in the breeze. Will they call? When is the mission done? The Christian camps and babies is great trope on adulthood too, foreign service of its own kind, both an endurance and a seduction into another kind of life. Does one ever leave the jungles? Brilliant stuff and cool jazz for the prompt.

  20. peterfrankiswrites · September 29

    Exciting and pacy writing. Liked the questions in this piece – identity, how secret codes get mixed up with lullabies and the distance she’s travelled in time and space – from revolvers and reconnaissance to rebozos and religion. Like also that it’s unresolved (for now at least).

  21. merrildsmith · September 29

    I liked all the little and telling details of this–the soup, and grease, and spit stains, the contralto hymn singing.
    I think of how spies must live compartmentalized lives. She’s buried the past, but somewhere it’s still there. In the recent TV show The Americans, the couple tries to balance their suburban American lives with their roles as Russian spies, and in the recent Tom Stoppard play we just saw the woman who heads the British spy unit notes how things stop during school holidays.

  22. Beverly Crawford · September 29

    Masterfullt descriptive. Great ability to “take us there”!

  23. purplepeninportland · September 29

    You placed us right there, with the soup smell, grease, and new life. Great detail!

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