Jealousy

When he told me he was leaving me, I disguised myself as a river so he wouldn’t see the tears flowing down my face, avoiding my jutting nose, creating little eddies in my dimples. He had fallen out of love, was feeling trapped. Each word sent ripples of pain in ever-growing screaming circles. The throbbing in my head, red-hot searing imprints, memories of ever-lasting words of love. Did they mean nothing?

I willed the river deep below. He was still talking, oblivious to the now underground river. He could safely ignore it, poison the deep subterranean waters with his thoughtlessness. I was part of a network of forlorn souls crying secret rivers feeding the world. Behold the Water Diviner, who rearranges us at will, sending hot lava flows one way, saturated brine streams another to corrode the next relationship, destroy the next milieu. The Water Diviner goes by the name Jealousy. He knows where to tap to raise the water, how often and how long. The bottomless reservoir of pain is dark and cold, numbing and scary. It contains washed-out bones, picked clean through acid tears. They lie jumbled and desolate, an underwater catacomb with no visitors. New skeletons sink to the bottom, forming a coral-like structure, brittle and beautiful in its chaotic manifestation. You would think the bones came up from the bottom, came to life from the sediments deposited over time, all the miseries of the world forming those haunting sculptures white on black, solid on liquid, beauty on despair.

What hides in the shadows of the bones? A mossy, furry substance has developed over the older memories, softening the hurt and changing the landscape. As people die, the bones turn to dust, a chalky residue that stains the cheeks of the next spurned lover, the next broken-hearted. The flow of tears is uninterrupted from trickle to full-on torrent. There is always fresh torment to ensure an ongoing supply. Sometimes pockets of air are born from the decay and bring to the surface old hurts to revisit and make new. They stink of unresolved situations gone moldy.

In this black night, the bones glow. Their uncanny beauty comes from within, the hurt eerily transmuted by an alchemy not well understood. When you plumb those depths, the real world feels like a dream, the new one like discovering the hidden face of the moon, with its musty air and weightlessness. Everything is upside down, no rules apply. Who is to say that thing is right, that one ugly? No, each one must make sense of it by himself, live by the rules he feels applies. This new world is governed by new words that have yet to be uttered.

Misty

She had the looks of a ballerina, with a bit more nervous energy than you would have expected. She was graced with a long fine aristocratic nose, princely demeanour, never-ending limbs with delicate tendrils, liquidy doe eyes to melt the stoniest of hearts.

Her silky grey coat was too scant for our harsh winters. You could practically hear her rib cage clatter as she shivered forcefully. She had the prized anorectic figure, well-defined skeleton under her light skin, a lithe body made for aerial acrobatics. Only her own could compete with her speed. She breathed competition and grew focused and intent straining to catch the white bag, a poor surrogate for a rabbit.

She missed the racing bib, the rush of the start, the pure joy of running full-tilt under the acclamations of the many, the barely contained cries of excitement of her competitors, the clack as the doors opened, the thrill of the chase!

She relived those days of old in her dreams, a series of white flashes that rippled through her body. She was wracked with arthritis now, an irony that was not lost on her, her painful body regaining its fluidity long after waking on humid days. And yet the grand dame still held her head high, her eyes foggy from the painkillers, her racing days a thirst she could not quench. In the fall, her legs twitched anew, adrenaline coursing through her body as discarded plastic bags ran under strong winds and flew through the air, awakening her chase instinct.

Her current humans were nice, a pair of gentle giants who took care of her, their long legs a match for hers as they strolled the neighborhood on warm days. It grew cold outside. Though she craved fresh air, she resented the extra coat and booties required for the deed. These days, more often than not, she retreated to her bed, minimally interested in the outdoors.

She was treated like royalty, admired like a piece of living art. She required cautious handling, commanded a delicate touch lest she shatter. She welcomed the muted adulation, the distant applause as she glided about. Her mere presence elevated people’s souls to rarefied spheres. She understood that to be her new life’s purpose. She had come to terms with her new state. In her presence, habitual coarseness was stripped off mortal beings, the rough edges sanded down, a more polished exterior attained. Her zen-like disposition created a calm, meditative environment.

Once in a while, humans took her and a few colleagues out of retirement. They attended yoga classes where they patrolled row after row of fawning humans, and posed for the gallery. She was the dean at those gatherings and given all the space that befitted her status. Again, she welcomed the attention but found the instructor’s voice tiresome.

On regular days, people stopped her handler and took pictures. The paparazzi never let up. That, she had had to endure ever since she was a gangly teenager She had hated the attention then, most pictures only showing a blur as she turned or skittered away. She was too beautiful to be reprimanded. Who would think of scolding a doe for her skittishness? No, she was accepted and praised for who she was: Misty, Queen of Air and Land.

She fell once, then again, and more often, her legs stiffening and jerking her to the ground in an undignified heap of incoordination. Her thoughts became muddled and fractured. Longer and longer naps were required to right things.

The day finally came when she only brought sadness to her humans. She knew she had to leave. They had one last walk, one last lick, one last nap. She kissed the good doctor on his ear, tickling him softly. She felt a gentle prick as the tightness and pain receded. Her surprised look mirrored her human’s gaze. Her features relaxed into a slow smile as she finally caught the elusive rabbit.

Pax

We sleep under a drizzling rain, partly covered by an overhang, my dog and me. We don’t complain: it is a warm wet that should help should the cold sweats overcome me as could be their wont. He wakes me when I trash, whining and licking my face. The nightmares don’t have time to pick up momentum and turn into full-blown mind-numbing horror. His name is Pax. I scratch him behind the ears and his anxious whines turn into a soothing, joyous almost painful whimper. He has issues of his own.

I did not want his company when we first met. I tried to shoo him away, but he just let me get a few paces ahead to stay clear of wayward kicks and stayed close by. I grew tired of ranting at him and eventually forgot about him. I had settled down near a bank machine, trying to shame people into giving me some change. I had my funny board, made up by a marketing type who had retired on the streets. He asked us at what spot we hung out and who our customers were. Then he custom-made signs from discarded boxes. We shared our profits if we saw an increase in our gains. He made a decent living with his wit, and people looked us in the eye with a smile and ready change when we held them.

I was in the business district that day, holding “Save the rainforests. Recycle your paper money here,” but things were slow. Presumably, this was the week-end. I couldn’t be sure after last night’s heavy boozing. It all blurred together, days and weeks, days and nights. I had lain down for a nap when I felt the ground tremble, and heard whoops and cries from a group of soft boys trying to be men. I tried not to offend, not sure which of submissive or garrulous would appease them, resigned at taking a beating. The mere sight of me was enough to excite them. They spotted me from afar and converged towards me, in a non-threatening manner that made me fear the worst. They faked gentleness to trap you into complying.

I started shaking uncontrollably until I heard a low growl. The dog was at my side, eyes intent and wide, fangs bared, paws firmly planted in the ground. The posse slowed down. I joined in the wild crazy eyes, striking a defiant pose and growled as well. The kids conferred, decided they wanted an easier target, and took a side street, whooping and making obscene gestures.

My heart was pumping like mad as I tried to relax, sweat pouring out of me. We both stopped growling at the same time.  I laughed loudly and held up my hand for a high five. He recoiled. Not for the first time, a wave of shame swept over me. I teared up and, after a brief hesitation, he nuzzled my palm. I started weeping then, it couldn’t be helped. He did not run away. My sobs subsided as quickly as they had started, emotions having free rein over me, an empty vessel without an anchor.

We walked. He led the way to the back of a restaurant where the chef was having a smoke. He smiled at the dog, flicked his cigarette butt in my direction, and went in. I took my cue from the dog and waited. I picked up the butt, still warm, and took a long drag. Sweet. The burning in my lungs made me feel alive.

The man came out with burgers, one each. “Don’t give him the buns, though,” he advised. We ate greedily, without talking, my stomach finding its own voice. The man lit another and held one out for me. I took it, grateful for the kindness in his eyes. “Dog’s got a name?” he asked. I heard myself answer proudly, “Pax.” He nodded. “That’s a good name.”

Dam(n)

The dam is leaking again and I am running out of ways of plugging the holes. The latest news had me crawling under the covers, cold to the bone, depleted. Why can’t I sleep? I am exhausted. Trying to run scenarios. What worked last time? I must get myself out of doors. Get my senses activated. I get up, grab a snack from the fridge, head outside to eat on the deck. The sun is shining bright. I eat mechanically. So tired. The sun is beating down on me. I rest my firehead down on the table. Firehead. It does feel like steam will soon shoot out of my ears.

I can feel the water rising inside me. Low tide is when I can make my way on firmer sand and leave traces of my passage. It’s not an easy walk. If I deviate or am distracted, I sink in the sand and stumble trying to make my way to the next tree, the next rock, the next landmark. There is lots to discover at low tide, the underbelly of the water body.

This is definitely high tide, where I am caught unawares in a maelstrom of thoughts. Suddenly, I’m in trouble. Angry water is swishing at my ankles, making walking perilous. The ground is shifting under me, throwing me off balance. Thoughts come in small bursts. They are incomplete, synapses misfiring, a little smoke where they hit a damp spot. It’s all foggy and sorry-looking inside. Stink of wet, rotten thoughts that need airing.

Was my dam ever tight? Does a dam not always leak? The vast reservoir of emotions is kept in check uphill, a little bit trickling down at a time. I am usually pretty happy with my dam: I add defense mechanisms to it; they usually hold up real good. Except lately. Lately, the water’s been too high, it’s been coming from all over, in rivulets and rivers, from the mountains and the rainfalls. It seems that’s all I see everywhere I look. Water coming down my cheeks, thoughts swimming in my head. Did I mention I was tired? This incessant paddling, threading water without respite. An occasional bit of driftwood sustains me briefly but it doesn’t last. It eventually sinks and I am left to my own devices.

I go under a few times – the water is opaque, still and cold. Nothing seems to live down there. I would have expected sharks, at least, and plenty of stuff floating around that would be edible. It turns out nobody wants my stuff. It probably sank to the bottom of me and only strong waves stirs them up. I go back up for air, why I wonder. Why not embrace the cold and stillness? Here I am, gasping, desperate to keep going. My foot finds a ledge. It is tiny, a mere bump, but hope surges through my body as I land one foot and then switch to the other, buying time, buying time.

And yet I wonder. What if I managed to tame the water? What about free diving? I trust that I can go under, and that my body will embrace the darkness. If I push past the fear and doubt, and fully immerse myself, what then? I quiet the voice within, screaming disagreement. I go inside, deep inside, past the fear, the cold, the isolation, the night – everything known and comforting. I keep pushing. I will run out of air, yet the need for air is not pressing. I will run out of time, yet time has slowed. I am back in the eternal womb, swathed by a gentle pressure as I keep heading down. I see flashes of light as I go – weak electric currents, photoluminescence. I keep going until I find vents –chemicals and heat are the answer. This is where the primal energy resides. This is what lies below. I have hit rock bottom and there is still life.

I pause briefly. Deep down, there is no thinking, just being. This deep there is intelligence but mostly survival instinct. I kick and head up. It is a long journey, back to the light. It feels longer as my organs decompress and start crying for air, as a baby cries for attention or food. I am focused and driven. I break the surface and inhale deeply. The fire in my lungs subsides.

Is this what I feared? This subtle shift in consciousness? I can’t wait to go back.

 

 

The Pen

From brain to paper
Through the umbilical cord, my pen,
Pulsating with life force, conveyor of all
Emotions, nutrition, retribution
In its aqueous sphere, bathing in darkness
Muffled sounds startle and soothe

My pen takes it all in and regurgitates
The most fantastical tales
Of woe and happiness
Uncomprehending of the larger view
Dancing and prancing

Revenge

The sound wave hit me with the staccato of a jackhammer, syllables resonating until my eyes grew wide and my jaw slacked. I searched around the room for a fellow reaction. Our eyes locked and we swallowed our faces. Tearing away our gaze, we feigned an indifference we did not feel. Allowing feeling would put us in harm’s way so we joined in the revelry until such time as we could leave. I pretexted a headache, not really a pretext as the tightening of my jaw was threatening to detonate my head. I did not acknowledge to myself the depth of the despair that had engulfed me.

I left the party early as it was a school day. My fellow gazer was retching outside. I had consumed two beers before hearing the news – my lips had touched the rim of the glass since but nothing else had gone down. The plants near where I had stood all night would be pretty hung over in the morning. I waited for him to regain his composure and we walked away together, though we had been stranger before that eye contact.

I had rehearsed the discussion many times during the evening but now it all seemed superfluous. Of course he knew her. How they had met did not really matter. Their relationship was obviously strong – he did not strike me as a possible sibling. Perhaps boyfriend material or confidante. I bet he was asking himself the same thing. What I wanted to know was if I could count on him for action. And did he have a plan? We turned to each other at the same time, eyes locking again, again refraining from talking. Ears everywhere. He indicated a trail in the bush and took it without checking whether I was following. I was, of course. We walked slowly, with an economy of moves. I felt numb, focusing on being discreet, summoning my inner tracker, the invisible one who walked noiselessly. We happened on an old silo – that was to be our destination. He knew the way in. The rust and dust reassured me. It was low and confined. There was no other exit than the entrance. Not an ideal scenario but the fact that he knew of its existence hinted at more.

I was not guarded around him and allowed myself to turn my back to him as I took in the surroundings. Some type of husks on the dirt floor, obviously remnants of the foodstuff the silo had housed. A pitchfork in a corner, its tines twisted so that it was no longer usable as a tool or a weapon. He showed me wires, the pitchfork, made white noise with his mouth. Ah, it used to connect to one of those devices that made white noise where clandestine meetings were held. I raised my eyebrows. He shrugged. We moved on.

We sat on the ground and spoke in hushed tones, the emotions we had withheld rushing out in a cascading river of hurt and urgency, boulders of silence diverting the flow now and then, eddies of anguish throwing us off course until we settled on an unhurried pace, dried tears on our cheeks. Our moist eyes and bared white fangs gleamed in the half-light. He was more practiced in the art of survival. He did not seem overly affected by the drinks he had imbibed earlier. His mind seemed clear, his plan simple: revenge at all costs.

Demolition Derby

The cars took position in the muddy arena under generous applause. Their freshly washed, freshly painted bodies glistened under the blazing sun. It was high noon. The drivers were blinded, hearts pumping, adrenaline coursing through their veins as they waited for the officials to signal the beginning of the hostilities.

The mud offered little traction to the souped-up engines. The roar of the crowd accompanied the revs and crashes as the cars heaved themselves bodily against each other. Some were impatient to enter the fray and get their first dent. Oil leaked, engine lights blinking madly as the engine bled out into the arena. Headlamps were shattered on impact, a horn was blaring non-stop, adding to the sound and fury. The dust rose into a cloud that hovered over the scene, obscuring the sun and foreboding the slaughter.

Two rivals were locked hood to hood, wheels spinning madly, spraying the nearby combatants, their drivers urging their mounts forward through clenched teeth. The squirmish was fruitless, both opponents of equal strength and resolve. Already, there were a few bodies strewn about. The weak ones had succumbed quickly under a single fatal blow or a vigorous push that left them stunned. A warrior hid strategically behind a heap of metal, a sniper patiently waiting in the shadows. He was booed copiously – the people wanted blood and gore. They wanted heroics, destruction, passion, not intelligence or coolness under fire. This was not a spectator sport, more of a down-and-dirty rolling in the mud, until total exhaustion took over.

The sun was heating up the crowd, boiling its blood. The announcer was describing the combat zone, pitting the vehicles against each other, taunting the drivers for the benefit of the masses. The crowd was moving as one, sending a wave across the stands. There was a lull. The cars that were still moving were asked to retreat to a secluded area while the wrecks were pushed or towed to the side, or lifted off the ground by a crane and left hanging overhead, like fish caught unawares, waiting to be swallowed whole.

The combat resumed. Both warriors and spectators were slowing down, fatigue taking its toll. Loudspeakers were blaring heavy metal, trying to whip up a frenzy. Mud-splattered cars were eyeing each other, slow to engage, running on fumes. A black car was circling, teeth showing from the torn-out grill. A small car was attacking in a flash and retreating quickly, nipping at the tailpipes, distracting and irritating other drivers with its constant feints. The incessant snaps were grinding them down. The boat-sized white car was on high alert. It suddenly reversed into the black car to the crowd’s delight. The white car ricocheted off its opponent and onto the low barrier. The black car was hissing and steaming, engine overheating, flapping metal hanging limply, metal shrieking and throwing sparks. The firemen waited in the wings.

The white car smiled. The small nimble car with its annoying nip barrelled into sight. It was no match for the heavyweights. The black and the white cars turned on their common foe. They both wanted the kill, sensing an easy win. In their haste, they got into each other’s way, rubbing fenders and stripping paint off with abandon. The small car was still full of pep, its energy far from exhausted. It rear-ended the white car at full speed, sending it forcefully into the black one. The white car was inconveniently sandwiched between its aggressor and its victim when it gave up the ghost. The black car was immobilized against the low wall, squeezed out of the game. If it could not disengage, the small car would get the honours.

The black car could not disentangle itself from the mess. A full minute passed without movement. The small car was smirking and had already started gleefully etching donuts into the dirt when the announcer declared the win. The crowd dispersed quickly, with scattered applause, already in search of more gore and excitement, as tow trucks mournfully swept through the field to cart away the remains. Dust was settling back as the quiet returned.

The River

The house stood by the river. So did the boys. Peter, Cedric, Josh and Aaron had all been told repeatedly by their respective moms to not go near the sleeping giantess. Aaron was the oldest and should have known better, except he was the one who dared them to come. He was 9 – Peter, my brother, was the youngest at 5, with Cedric and Josh vying for second spot.

 

The boys wore heavy clothes. The morning air was fresh and crisp still, though Easter neared. You could hear the creaking and sighing of the river trying to shed its coat. The breakup was imminent. The townspeople were concerned, and children warned to stay away from the fretful ice. But the boys had heard the mermaid’s song and they were under her spell.

 

Peter had joined the trio, though they kept telling him to go home, that this was not the place for a little boy. Wanting to prove himself, he was walking on the ice. He called to the others to come see – he had found a spot of open water. It was roiling, a deep current preventing the ice from laying dormant and waiting patiently to thaw. Peter was throwing twigs in the hole, watching them flee like horsemen. He loved nothing better than to play cowboys and Indians, horsing around the house. He told Cedric to hand him a big rock, that seemed frozen to the ground on the bank near the hole. The mist made the bank slippery and the rock would be hard to dislodge. Cedric ignored him. Peter persisted, wanting to throw the rock in. The others complained they would get splashed, that it was a dumb idea. His temper flared but they paid him no attention.

 

Still, the boys played on the ice. The river held them all in her gaze, the hole a hungry mouth, the foam her rabid teeth. She roared and spluttered and cajoled and hissed. The boys were cautious, and stayed on the edge, yet were drawn again and again to the living, breathing river. “There’s a big crack, here!” shouted Cedric. Aaron told the boys it was getting boring and they should go. Peter said they should try ice fishing. All eyes turned to him. He had found a branch and had tied together his boot laces to it. He had found a discarded red ribbon that he wanted to use as a lure. He had lain his red mitts on the ice so he could tie the laces together. His fingers were numb and he was fumbling with the knot. Aaron stepped in and tied the whole thing securely.

 

They heard the town clock chime eleven. The sun was shining weakly, out of a sorry sky. They cast no shadow on the ice; all around was gray, dirty white on the river. Their coats stood out starkly against the monochrome background. “The lure will float. We need a sinker,” said Aaron finally. The boys got busy. They would bring home fish for lunch! They ran back to the bank to look for something small and heavy. They were hot under the heavy coats, but focused on the task at hand. They found and discarded rubbish: an old shoe, a piece of plank, and rocks of various sizes. They settled on a beer cap that they glued on with a piece of gum. Peter kept repeating, “What a grand idea. I thought of it.” till the boys got annoyed. He was right though, and it wouldn’t do to send him home.

 

It was a busy Saturday on the main road and someone had seen the boys playing by the river. Aaron’s father came and scolded the boy holding the makeshift fishing rod. He dismantled the whole thing, re-laced Peter’s boots. He walked everybody back to the main street and sent the boys home where they were grounded. In the afternoon, several men were seen erecting a fence along the bank, among them Aaron’s father and the priest.

 

The sky had cleared and the men had downed their coats and cassock. It was proving to be a beautiful sunny afternoon. They were working in their shirtsleeves, with a sense of urgency, casting anxious glances where puddles had formed. They watched as the crack grew larger and the ice finally started sinking, the red mitts disappearing from view, gobbled greedily by the river. It was a poor offering. They hoped she would be satisfied and not call the children again.

Silent Night

She’s reading a magazine at the kitchen table, her swollen feet on the opposite chair. He comes in, she looks up and stares, not in surprise or anything. It’s just the way she is. He stares at her briefly, takes his coat off, his shoes off, and goes into the kitchen. She retreats to the living room and turns on the television at low volume. He opens the fridge, looking for a quick bite. He takes out an apple and some cheese, pours himself a tall glass of water. He looks into the living room.

It’s a small apartment. It can’t be said that any room is her domain more than his. Actually, the lazy boy is his territory. He keeps the remote in a pouch on the side. She likes the couch. She’s got her wool and knitting needles in a basket tucked away at the foot of the plant. She doesn’t want food in the living room, so he stands in the doorway munching on the apple and cheese. He likes that salty and sweet combo.

Something smells good in the oven – he peeks. It’s lasagna. He’ll prepare a salad to go with that.  He tosses the apple core, gets the lettuce, whistling softly all the while. He checks the timer – a good ten minutes to go. She’s timed it well. He sets the table, washes and tosses the salad. Is he missing anything? He goes to the bedroom and changes into more relaxed clothes.

The timer goes off – he hears the television set getting shut off, the creaking of the sofa. He washes up and joins her at the kitchen table. She’s served the salad into individual bowls and landed a large piece of lasagna in each plate. They savour their meal, not talking, happy for the filling food. He stretches, goes for a cigarette. He looks up. She’s staring. She takes the one he’s offering her and he takes another for himself. He lights hers up, then his. They savour the smoke, not talking, happy for the small transgression.

He gets up to do the dishes and tidy up. He turns on the radio – it’s oldies, which they both enjoy. She stays in the kitchen, and gets going on the last sleeve. She’s knitting a vest for Laura, their grandchild. It’s red with flowers all around the border and the sleeves. She wants it done in time for her first day of school. It’s a bit big but she’ll grow into it. Red is her favourite colour.

If she’s going to be knitting, he’ll probably go for a walk and a beer, see if anybody’s there. He wishes once again that they had a dog. Then he wouldn’t go for a drink, just for a walk. He feels like a stalker when he walks by himself. He’s done with the dishes, he heads for the door. She grabs her knitting, turns off the radio and heads for the living room. “Jeopardy” is on shortly.

Perfection

– The problem is, it’s too perfect.
– That’s not possible. Perfection is binary. It’s perfect or it isn’t. It can’t be too perfect.
– Look, for me perfection is the same as normality. It’s a convention. Too perfect is lifeless. Remember when CDs came on the market? Purists wanted the scratches from the previous recordings. There is something to be said for the messiness of life. When it’s too perfect, it gets too cerebral; it no longer speaks to the animal in us.
– We are still talking about landscaping, right?
– Are you doing this on purpose? I am just saying that if you don’t break the symmetry or add a touch of whimsy,… Remember when women painted moles on their faces? False beauty marks to stand out?
– And then it became a fashion trend. Nothing like standing out for other people to want to be unique just like you.
– Maybe we’re digressing.

They look at the house. A short alley, a few steps, a porch, a red door. Large pots with cascading flowers flanking the door.

– We could use one of the pots elsewhere, as a reminder of this one. One calls to the other. There is tension, a need for completion.
– You’re doing this as if it were a painting.
– And why not? A painting is a representation of life.
– I will leave it up to you to find a compromise. You’re perfect at that.
– Very funny. Nobody’s perfect…
– Not even a perfect stranger!*

They laugh and start dancing like the crazy teenagers they once were.

They’re dancing on the front lawn. “Our house… in the middle of our street,”** they sing loudly.
– I can’t believe we were arguing over flower pots. Argh! We’ve turned into our parents.
– Let’s strive for imperfection and celebrate flaws!
– Plaid and stripes! I’ll start wearing purple with a red hat which doesn’t suit me…***

They go to bed still laughing, feeling light. It’s a good feeling.

They’re a bit uneasy, in the morning. They look at their manicured lawn, at their nice clothes. They’re not sure how to go about embracing flaws. They try and remember the lightness – that helps. They eye a crumb on the table from the toast they ate. Is that imperfect – or unsanitary? Will they feel heavy or light if they leave it there? They make an effort and leave it conspicuously on the table. “Don’t sweat the small stuff” becomes their mantra. They simplify an already simple life – or so they thought. They find they are drawn to people they had lost touch with – they had become unpalatable. The refinement of their palate had cost them friendships.

Are there other hidden costs? Yes, they’ve lost their spark. They now have a reflection of their spark. They dig deeper. They’ve hidden what made them unique. Flaws are what make us intrinsically human.

 

*Time the Avenger, by The Pretenders
**Our House, by Madness
*** “Warning” by Jenny Joseph

Kory death rituals

Death in the Kory culture is an elaborate affair. I have written elsewhere of the rites and rituals surrounding the disposal of the body. I will focus here on the impact on the clan and immediate members of the family. I interviewed Klio, whose husband was killed by a wild boar during a hunt. The meat was offered ceremoniously at the internment. Her face was still smeared in ash and clay, and would remain so as long as she saw fit.

We could only refer to her husband by the relationship they had. His name was no longer to be uttered, and would never again be used in naming another child. Anyone who had a similar name would be encouraged to add a syllable in front. For example, someone named Opona where the deceased was Oponge, would now be called Keopona. Because the tonic accent was on the first syllable, the name would sound differently and no longer cause undue grief and pain. In the olden times, a finger of the relatives would be amputated at the first phalange to indicate the hurt, and the closeness and harmony shattered. Nowadays, this tradition was no longer followed, but people still felt a need to symbolize the loss. A number of the Kory had taken to sporting a tattoo of a hand with a severed finger, or alternately the finger would be dark and shown with a red string on it, which was the first stage before the digit was cut off. Klio had such a tattoo from the earlier death of her beloved sister. She planned to get the tattoo updated to signify her husband’s demise.

They had buried the body with all that was dear to him: his radio, his wristwatch, his fishing hat and lures (much to the chagrin of his fishing buddies), various tools and weapons. It was better that way – seeing those things would have been a daily reminder of his departure. This way, and by never again saying his name, it was said that his spirit would be free to join the stars. Still, Klio confided in me (surely because I was an outsider and did not know how wrong it was), she dreamt of him almost every night. They had been very close, and in the dream, he was either holding her hand, lovingly caressing an amputated finger, or saying goodbye in different ways. His death had been sudden and unexpected, and they did not have time to do so in real life. In the dream, she would sing his name, or whisper it in his ear. Sometimes, at that point, he would simply vanish in a wisp of smoke. She could not ask for advice, as these dreams were forbidden. She found a measure of relief just sharing them with me.

An anthropologist’s job is delicate. Just the recording or interviewing of subjects could change the dynamics and introduce new elements in the culture. It’s a difficult juggling act that requires much tact.

Ink Art

She mastered the throwing of the ink at an early age. Her pouch was supple and contained plenty. She dreamed that she had access to differently colored inks. Not that she wasn’t content doing black and white. It afforded her the pleasure of contrast, of crispness and vagueness, shadow and light. She had taken to sending splashes in quick succession. The trick was to use the tentacles to shape the ink. It tended to dilute before she had time to fully express her thought. Her art was evanescent.

She was dedicated to her craft. It was less a matter of physical survival than of emotional fulfillment. Other squids left her alone, thought her weird. One or two kept an eye on her, either for fear or curiosity, she couldn’t tell. They alternated bringing her attention to food. She always felt ravenous after an inking session. She also must eat to replenish her ink supply.

She enjoyed long sessions of reflection – lying in wait for her next meal, she watched her envelope transform to blend with its surroundings. It went against the grain. She wanted to stand out! Throw ink in people’s faces! Instead of only replicating her own shape to distract would-be predators and flee, she sought to reproduce the predators’ own shape, as in a mirror. She spent long hours perfecting her gaze, to catch a likeness instantly. She mesmerized her aggressors – they loved seeing themselves more than eating. Her work garnered reputation; predators unknown to these parts came from far and wide to get a glimpse of themselves. They sometimes regurgitated fish for her in a gesture of gratitude. Soon she had hangers-on, eager to benefit from the overflow. She sometimes ate them distractedly. Anything for her art.

She generously taught. The parents were incensed but some kids were really talented and developed their own style. Two boys, born of the same mass of eggs, lived as one. They took to floating across from each other. One would project the ink while the other molded it. The first had to guess at the creation. Other times, they played riddles. The first one sent out a splash of ink and the second one would try and guess what it was. In the early days, it was more Rorschach than skill, but they honed their skills over time.

The boys started collaborating on projects, each inking to complete the others’ thought. Their intelligence fused, their sculptures fascinated their peers. They were skinny. They were so immersed in their work that they would go without eating or sleeping, consumed in thought. That made them less appetizing and afforded them some protection. Feelings about them ranged from dismay to admiration. A lot of their peers just tried to ignore them, hoping their influence would decrease as the novelty wore off. It didn’t. Soon sharks came circling – the boys had gone beyond mere reproduction and flattery. They bravely expressed their vision of the world, living for the thrill of sharing it.

Squid

Hidden on the coral reef, merging seamlessly with my surroundings, I spy with my little eye a pesky lazy fish. He’s been tormenting his rival long enough. I extend my longest tentacles and drop him in my mouth. He squirms and protests as I swallow. Good riddance! I am a knight in camouflage…

Back to my trusty reef, where I again assume my watch position. I shiver – a small shark is back in the neighborhood. Conversations cease. Remoras latch on for a ride and a bite. The rest of us hide in crevices. I hide in plain sight. Sharks have poor vision but they are sensitive to every vibration. I think zen thoughts and stay motionless. The remoras have spotted me. One squints and whispers something to the other. I hope they weren’t friends with my earlier snack. I bet they were. The first one goes to the shark and points at the reef. The shark hesitates. He doesn’t know if he can trust them, doesn’t want to look like a fool crashing into the reef and possibly hurting himself. He shrugs and heads out. I start breathing again and subdued conversations resume.

Nobody hazards to swim in my area. I grow bored. I don’t enjoy the camouflage strategy – secure but dull. I decide to swim out, cautiously. I can see the sun shining brightly. It’s a beautiful sunny day – I may have more luck skimming the surface. I start up but see a large shadow. A ripple of fear follows the scream “Cormoran”. I throw my doppelganger in ink and swim back down. The bird goes for it, its beak clamping down on my shadow while I escape unscathed. That was too close for comfort. I would be sweating if I had sweat glands.

Oooh, nice, a few crabs. They crunch satisfyingly under my beak. I rip them to smaller pieces that I place delicately in my mouth. So focused was I on savouring this substantial dish that I react slowly to the attack. If the evil remora had not snickered, I would have been the shark’s meal. I flatten myself to the ground, cursing my luck. The remaining crabs scamper off.

A hungry shark is suggestible. When we both have eaten our full, we like to visit and shoot the breeze. But with the remoras in a mischievous mood, I better lie low. I decide to go haunt the wreck. I love to photobomb the divers or frighten them with an ink impression of themselves. That totally freaks them out. They’ve sunk that one intentionally. They even have a fake skeleton with an Elvis hairpiece. That’s just bad form. Polluting the neighborhood with tacky sculptures but, hey, the kids love it; it gives them a place to hang out.

School is out. They move as one. Their ballet is a feast for the eyes. I hardly ever break them up to eat any. It just feels wrong to destroy an art piece. I would rather go hungry.

The Garden

– Hullo?
– Hullo
– Is that you, Betsy?
– Ya
– What’s up?
– Don’t know how to dig a garden. I want vegetables this year.
– You want me to come and show you?
– Ya
– Now?
– Okay

They hang up. Shirley will get this done, in a methodical fashion. She’s glad Betsy asked for help. She doesn’t shut up when drunk, but the rest of the time she’s pretty quiet. Still there’s a strong bond between them. Shirley’s a Brit, a relative newcomer to Australia. Her family moved here when she was just a toddler, ages ago. Betsy, she’s the real deal. Aboriginal through and through, her roots to the land far and deep. She bought this large property, off the money she makes from her paintings, and she roams it, never tried to tame it. Relatives and friends camp on it, go walkabout.

Shirley’s happy that Betsy’s thinking of a vegetable patch. It’s not too early to start one. She’ll show her how to till the earth; they can discuss what she wants to grow; they can go and buy the seeds together. She’s happy to be doing something constructive with her. Betsy’s been despondent since she broke up with her abusive husband. That’s where they met, over 10 years ago. The woman’s shelter. She too was stuck in an abusive relationship. They were the only two women in the shelter at that time who were childless. They bonded and stayed friends after moving back into the world.

They help each other out. Shirley pours her heart out to calm, reasonable Betsy after she’s had one too many. Shirley helps Betsy with paperwork. It helps to speed things up to have a pushy pommy friend. Her divorce papers still need to be signed. Betsy had religion set upon her. She balks at this final step that would rid her for good of her no-good husband. But things can’t be rushed. Maybe Shirley can find a way in as they spend more time setting up the garden.

She’s almost ready to go. While thinking, she’s been gathering her things: two pairs of gloves, a spade, a rake, a pitchfork, her hat and sunscreen. Plenty of sunscreen. The sun, omnipresent even in the fall and winter. The sun that would set her pommy skin afire were it not for the long white sleeves, the hat, the sunscreen. She hops in her ute and sets out to Betsy’s. It’s a fair drive out, but then everything is far here. You get used to it. Tropical trees, wild parrots,… that takes longer. She’s still amazed after all this time. She’s gone to England a few times to visit relatives. It’s dreary, always raining. She missed Sydney. That’s her real home.

She calls ahead. “I’ll be at your place in 10 minutes.” “Okay.” She turns onto the long gravel drive. Honks. Betsy’s nowhere to be seen. She sighs as she unloads. The place is magnificent, the vegetation lush under the hard sun. She heads for the shade. There’s Betsy, cell phone in hand. She hadn’t seen her because of the glare. They hug. Betsy looks good, at peace.

 

– Do you need help with that? she says, pointing at the gardening tools. “Let me hold everything while you grease yourself up.”

Betsy had been horrified the day Shirley had forgotten her sunscreen, her delicate white skin turning an angry red, painful to the touch. She had burned and then her skin had pealed. Betsy had been oddly fascinated. She never again let her go in the sun without “greasing herself up” as she puts it.

***

-Where do you want your garden?
-The front of the house, maybe?

They find a spot, delineate the perimeter. Shirley does most of the talking. She’s in her element.

– Those tall trees will give shade in the afternoon. That’s okay, you don’t want everything to burn up! You’ll probably have to water a fair bit.

– Well, I’ll be planting native plants. They should be okay with the sun.

Shirley starts digging in earnest. The soil will need fertilizing. She’s thinking aloud, a bit excited. Her friend is quiet. She hears a low moan and turns around. Betsy is doubled over in pain, her face set in a grimace, her breathing shallow. Heart attack? Shirley throws the spade down and rushes to her side.

– What’s going on? Talk to me!
– Stop digging. You’re hurting me.
– What? What are you saying, I don’t understand.

Betsy’s colours are slowly returning.

-You were hitting me with that shovel. I couldn’t stand it. Every time you dug was a blow to my gut. I can’t do it. We have to stop. No garden for me. The earth is crying out and weeping. Please, please, return everything back the way it was.

– What? You can’t be serious!

Shirley can see she is. She’s never been more serious. Betsy still can’t stand. Shirley can see her insides bleeding out. She chases the image from her mind.

– Of course, I will put everything back to how it was.
– We need to apologize.

Shirley doesn’t believe her ears. She drove all the way here with the best of intentions. The vegetable patch was a great idea. She breathes in. There is so much she doesn’t get. She can tell her friend was in pain. The problem is with her. She wants to tame the land, not work with it. She feels deflated as she puts the soil back in place. Betsy has gone into the house. Comes back out with tobacco, the ceremonial offering.

***

Betsy says a heartfelt apology as she sprinkles tobacco in the soil. Shirley joins in. Peace is restored. She can actually feel it in her bones. Maybe one day she will belong. Betsy is willing to show her. All she needs is to listen and learn. Pay attention. Not think she knows better.

She thanks her friend, apologizes to her as well, subdued but at peace. They go in for tea.

War Haikus

All Jewish babies
Cried under the occupation
Sorrow eternal ‎

***

Badge of yellow shame
Sewn on the tailor people
United in pain

***

Turned away from life
St. Louis passengers despair
Tsunami of hate

***

Cold invades my soul
As I watch the ghetto burn
A drink in my hand

***

Cigar burning long
After the speeches were said ‎
The man hardly slept

***

Nuclear heads armed ‎
Backyard bunkers all readied
Cold war heating up‎

***

Blind

She disagreed that the eyes were the mirror of the soul. Had this been the case, her blind mother’s soul would have a faraway, disinterested feel. No, she knew hands did the trick. The way her mother held her close, gently, lovingly, as though she were an egg – yes, fragile, and full of life. Her mother’s hand unconsciously looked for hers when they went outside. They were attentive, in tune with her changing moods. You could have a conversation with those hands. They were animated and strong. They laughed and sang. My mother was full-blooded Italian. There was nothing shy or retiring about her. She owned her blindness. It did not own her by any stretch of the imagination.

My mom’s best friend was uncle Thomas, her baby brother, always at her side. He was sighted and took care of her. Mom said that she didn’t do much before he came along but when he did, they became inseparable. They climbed trees together, way high. She was not afraid of heights and she was uncannily good at finding foot- and handholds. He loved heights and was a daredevil. He pushed her out of her comfort zone yet was also fiercely protective of her. They made a good pair. When they were teenagers, she learned to apply makeup using him as a mirror. He was her confidante. She was strikingly beautiful with long black hair and dark eyebrows. She had many friends, but no boyfriend. They lived in a small community. Thomas would accompany her to the dance hall even though he was underage. He would get a Coke for himself, and a rum and coke for her. He was a good talker and a good dancer. They would meet up with her friends — he was never short of female attention. Still, he kept an eye on her while having a good time. One evening, she whispered to him “Thomas, who is the tall man?” He looked around. Sure enough, there was a tall man he didn’t know. “Do you want me to find out and invite him over?” “Yes. Don’t tell him I’m blind,” she added urgently. “Yes, ma’am,” he replied lightly.

He thought she must have heard something special in his voice. This was an unusual request. She never mentioned she was blind. It was as though it never occurred to her. But of course it did; she just didn’t make a fuss about it. Chastened, he headed over to the stranger who was talking with Charlie and Bruce. They greeted him and introduced him to Peter, Bruce’s cousin. “Good thing you came over, Tom. Peter was looking for a way to go talk to your sister. He’s a bit shy for a city slicker. You mind taking him over?” Tom looked at Peter. He looked friendly enough, did not flinch upon his gaze, did not look away. There was something frank and open about him that Tom liked. He didn’t grill him much, did not want to make him squirm. He also did not want to keep his sister waiting. He was curious. He tried to hit upon things they might both like to make the introduction easier. “Do you play any musical instrument?” he asked. We always marvelled at that when we heard the story. “How did you think to ask, uncle Tom?” “I must have been divinely inspired,” he would always reply. “I sing,” he replied. Well, that was unusual for a man to admit. “What do you sing?” asked Tom. “Operas, mostly.” “Would you like to meet my sister Bianca? She loves music.” And the rest, as they say, is history.

Our house was always full of drama – between an opera singer and an Italian mother, there was passion and laughter, screams of delight and fury. Sparks, they called it. “It won’t start a fire, darling, don’t worry,” they would reassure me. Dad took uncle Tom’s place. Uncle Tom was his best man, and he was uncle Tom’s when the time came. The two families were close, blindness a side story, like a woman who was a bad cook or a man who loved to dress up as a woman. Something odd that you might mention when whiling away the time, but not scandalous in our little community. The fact is, mama was a beauty and all the men were jealous of papa.

Even in old age, her hands were still beautiful, having mellowed with time, the age spots like wrinkles at the crease of her eyes. Her long pale fingers read the faces of her grandchildren as a smile spread about her face. In her melodious voice, she told fabulous stories of all she had seen. The kids were puzzled: “How did you see?” She would gently tell them to close their eyes and listen. “Let’s go for a ride,” she would say. They would push her wheelchair about, “No peeking!”, and listen with her to the sounds all around. “I bet that’s Mrs Wilson. Hear how she shuffles her feet just so? And the birds stopped singing – I bet Dr Darcy’s cat is lying in wait.” They would open their eyes then. Sure enough, there was Mrs Wilson, and in the tall grass, tail awhippin’ was the calico cat, ready to pounce. “What else did you see?” they would ask, again and again, pushing her among the rosebushes of the cemetery. It was handy to stroll in the graveyard. No fast cars, gentle slopes, and greenery all around. They would always end up at papa’s grave. She would get up and put her hand on the headstone, trace the writing with her finger. On the return trip, she would be lost in thought.

Papa was her only blind spot. Even when I would point out his obvious faults, reminding her of their epic fights, there was no convincing her. She would say, pensively, “Funny, I always thought you were his favourite.” The fault was never his, her faith in him unwavering.