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.