Short Fiction by Thea Schiller

Spread, by Mariakan Cochius

Dear Nelson Mandela, by Thea Schiller

My best friend is from South Africa.

My face is whiter than the bleached sands of Arabia.

Outside a synagogue in Dijon, a German Jew came up to me and said, Madame, votre fille et vous, vous n’avez pas l’air juive.

I said to this woman that plenty of blue-eyed blondes got gassed. Why am I telling you this? Oh, Mandela, did I tell you about a friend of my friend’s mother who was in Auschwitz? And she knew one of the guards from the days her husband tuned the guard’s piano so his wife could play Beethoven and Mozart sonatas before going to sleep.

The guard said, Gilda, when the tea comes—because she was already in the hospital working—if your tea is dark and black, you will be saved; but if it’s with milk, there will be nothing I can do for you.

Can you imagine how the woman felt at 4:02 p.m.? I don’t know how she knew the time as she wasn’t wearing a watch but still had the silver in her teeth. He came with black tea, blacker than the most fertile earth. To this day, she won’t drink white tea. Can you blame her? I’m thinking of you, Mandela, while I drink my tea with my friend from South Africa. I’ve just looked at photographs of luscious beaches outside Cape Town and the wide-smiling mouth of the black woman she loved and who helped her with her children.

Nelson, I heard about how people ate and drank and danced late at night, even made love at dusk on a wet lawn outside the mansions while women in their menstrual moon considered drinking blood to make more time. I’ve heard how women bought silk dresses and dyed shoes to match to attend an opera while other women lay down between pieces of chicken wire to pray for souls they feared were guilty of this heinous sin.

Yesterday, I walked across a field and saw them, the white and green little boys pretending to be men. And I heard their coach seethe, do I have to sit on you F’s before you come back?

What are they doing?? My child asked.

Trying to be what their fathers think are men, I said.

They ran fast and sure until they touched the leather hanging hoops of swings yelling, gotcha, move it bugger, gotcha.

From this distance, they seemed like small robots flowering the fields.

We ran ourselves into a red plastic tube and played airplane. Do you know how you play airplane? You stay crunched up inside while the child climbs on top for freedom and clouds, and she or he directs where you’re going.

All the time I thought of you Nelson, where you were, your wife, your children, your grandchildren, your people. Were they burying a tin house in the mud in the morning to hide? Why am I playing airplane while thousands count less than a morsel of bread?

I’m not going to buy a ticket or a gun or a whistle or sing a sinner’s tune, but Nelson Mandela, where will we all be when it comes down?

My daughter wants to wear her red dress tomorrow and tells me about it emphatically. Where am I going wrong? Will it take a midnight flight on a jet pressed express to the darkened continent for eyes to tolerate the night, the morning sun, to remember their birthright was only because of all these days of awe and sin.

It’s hard that I’m only alive because of the red rain. I know the young men didn’t want the flowers and grasses to bloom too full and too long.

My dad was at Pearl Harbor. He hates the Japanese, but I adore them. Their women are beautiful, and so are their men, I say. If you hate them, I tell him, they will come at night and get you and eat up your soul. He tells me I have too much of an imagination, but I believe this.

I am returning to a small town where they sell smoked fish on old oily paper, and men wear hats to show their humility to God, and people stop and talk at the harbor about their stomachaches and children’s paintings.

I see them, the two children. My daughter is in a dress past her ankles. It is brown and has a piece of lace hanging off the hem. Her brother, who she doesn’t have, is wearing a long black coat and a big black hat, and they are in the middle of the street on Shabbat sinning with the marbles.

? What are you doing, Katya?? I ask.

? I’m sinning, Mommy, with my marbles? She replies.

? What are you doing, Moshe??

? I’m sinning with my sister’s marbles? He laughs.

And what am I doing? I am waiting for the shofar because even though I am living in the world of shopping centers, I can still hear the sounds I knew long ago.

Nelson Mandela, they kill more than ram’s horns, and I think they’re Pire, Pire, Pire, Pire; ce sont les homes les plus pires dans le monde. Excuse my French; it’s not the best. Where is your mother now? Is she holding your head and giving you orange juice to drink so you can tolerate the night?

Have you seen, at the end of summer in the humid rain, how leaves vibrate, how even the pattern of grain on the barks of trees drips down? Oh, Mandela, will you ever sing again?

How can I go to South Africa? It’s 2 in the morning.  My husband is dreaming of drinking wine in the French forests with his friends. My daughter is dreaming of the fire station she will visit with her nursery school class.

And I am dreamless. I am thinking of the woman who desires black tea. If you could see me, Mandela, look into my gray eyes, you would feel that I too have known the disintegrating rainbow at the end of the hurricane. That, I too, went running from the train to find a place back home again.

If I could for one day come to your prison cell and take your hands and read you some poems, I would. Oh, Nelson Mandela, what would I do? I would sit on your cold cell floor and tell you everything about my life and repeat all your stories word for word, saying them over and over again until they made the cell reality, and the word Africa would burn my tongue. Do you think after that, I could flatten the distended bellies on the black babies?

Nelson, it’s not from where we’ve come that matters, but where we are going. Are we going to hell, each and every one of us?

I’ve heard about those women who bought fake pearls because they couldn’t afford real ones. They left them on while their husbands made love to them, and the other women defecated while saying Yizkor inside the chicken wire.

I can never meet you. And if I could, what could I do? Sing you a lullaby or put pencils up the noses of Afrikaner prison guards at noon?

We are all travelling in the summer. Some get 2 weeks’ vacation and go to Cape Cod. Others hike in the Grand Canyon and even others are fooled by the phony European lie of life. But you, Nelson, you know the winded grasses in the moonlight. You are not a believer of ice cream, collecting seashells, and eating shellfish with buttered fingers at the shore.

            There must be a way to say what needs to be said, like the men in their tasseled prayer. There must be a way to make love to the world so everyone understands that it is not tomorrow that pretty things need to be done. It is not our children who must learn and change. It is us.

It is too big and too scary and too much like an airplane full of? Bombs exploding in plein aire? And the rocket’s red glare of bombs bursting in air, and it’s going to happen again. We haven’t learned a goddamn thing. I wasn’t there to see the room of children’s leathered shoes or smell the singed fragile hair; and like the woman from Dijon says, Madame, vous n’avez pas l’air juive.

Nelson, if you could see me now, you’d smile at my dark face, my bones all-eager for the night.  You’d see my gray eyes turn charcoal marble and become very black. You’d smile at your sister from Long Island, who would escape the Oriental Rugby life and follow the ancient patterns of God’s laws into twilight.

? Oh, Hear Oh Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.

Don’t let genocide happen again.

? Shema Yisrael, Adonoi Elohenu, Adonoi Echod.

Praised be his Name Forever and Ever.

Don’t let genocide happen again.

? Oh, Hear Oh Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.

? Praised be his Name Forever and Ever.

Don’t let genocide happen again.

Nelson, you would have brought Gilda black tea even if it meant your life. You wouldn’t have sat in some brightened corner with your schnapps and whiskey and let her drink it white. You believe in black.

Nelson Mandela, would you do me this honor of sitting down at prayer with me.

Like this. We are at the beach. They are all gone. The Whites gone.

The Blacks gone. Those with high cheekbones, those with low foreheads, gone. Those with green emerald eyes, those with black jetty pupils, gone. Those with thin strands covering their cheeks, those with a thick carpet sculpted. They are all gone.

What remains?


The memory of Gilda and the black tea, gone.

The fantasy of Katya and Moshe gone.

The image of you and your wife on the mountain gone.

? Hear Oh Israel, the Lord Our God, gone.

What remains?


What remains?

The water.

What remains?

Your hands.

What remains?

My hands.

What remains?

The sky.

What remains?

The stars.

What remains? Our eyes, our eyes. They remain. We win. If only we could win and remain.


Thea Schiller, a New York poet and psychotherapist, facilitates a poetry workshop at the Somers Library in Somers, NY. and practices psychotherapy in Connecticut. She holds a BA in Creative Writing from the City University of New York, and an MS in counseling from Western Connecticut State University. Her poem “Sarah” was the Orchard Poetry Prize winner in the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Furrow Magazine. Recently, she has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and her poems have appeared in the 2017-2018 San Diego Annual Poetry Review, Edify Fiction, The Ravens Perch, 4th & Sycamore, Hevria, Lucent Dreaming, and The Tenth Muse as well as many small literary journals. When given the chance, she follows her muse from Norway to Greece.

Interview with Thea Schiller

  1. How long have you been writing?

I started writing poetry at the age of 12. During my twenties, I took master poetry writing classes in New York City. I have a BA in Creative Writing from the City University of New York.

  • Is writing your full-time job?

I was a full-time psychotherapist until recently, and now I’m semi-retired, so I have more time to write.

3.    What inspired this work?

Nelson Mandela has always been one of my heroes. I am a humanitarian who is connected to people’s personal and cultural struggles.

4.    What writers or artists do you like?

Pablo Neruda and Carl Sandburg are favorite poets. My literary tastes

range from adoring the famous novels of Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf, and also enjoying lesser-known novelists who write funny novels such as Sophie Kinsella.

  1. Where can we find your recent or future works?

You can find my poetry collection, Blue Morning River, on Amazon, and some of my other poems in literary magazines such as The Raven’s Perch and the2017-2018 San Diego Annual Poetry Review. I have recently written a first novel entitled Feather Dance, which is yet to be published.

  •     What would you advise those interested in becoming published writers?

I would advise beginner writers to write, write, write, and develop their own voice before trying to get published. Once a writer has an established voice, they can try getting published. Taking reputable writing workshops that help one develop a voice can be useful; however, I’m not a fan of slash-and-burn critical writing workshops, as they inhibit and destroy a growing literary person.