Take Me to Your Leader

– Take me to your leader, it said.

– What are your intentions? I replied.

– Terminate.

– I see. Why is that?

– It is killing the Blue Planet.

– We have a gathering of leaders. They will be meeting all together in one room for a summit. You will recognize the biggest leader because he will tell you who he is when you ask. He will probably threaten you. I assume the ones beside him will be his closest allies. There will be mega-security. And you don’t have a pass, so they won’t let you in.

– Take me to your leader, it said again, but slowly this time.

– Will you give me a ride?

We teleported to the UFO, hovering over the sea. I went into a gelatinous substance. I could breathe and emit vibrations that were understood as speech. I understood their vibrations as well. It was amazing. I didn’t think of my own safety. I was too excited.

– You are sending happy vibrations, stated the Being.

– Can you tell me what your plan is?

– The carbon atoms that make up the body will be dissolved.

– Why now? Where do you live?

– We live here. On the water. We have given this much thought. Since we are guests, we did not want to be disrespectful. But it is getting worse and worse. Our hosts are dying, becoming extinct. They are suffering and have asked for our help.

I gave it the coordinates of the UN headquarters, and the date and times the leaders would meet.

– You are emitting sadness and regret, stated the Being. Why?

– On our planet, we don’t like terminating others of our kind.

The Being laughed. I could feel the hilarity gaining momentum and understood other beings were also listening in on the conversation. Soon, I felt like laughing too.

– We understand jokes, he said proudly.

I didn’t have the heart to disabuse it of its misconception. I changed tactics.

– What is your name?

– Tiktak. What is your name?

– Ali.

Properly introduced, we continued our conversation.

– Ali, why were you emitting sadness and regret?

– I am contributing to the destruction of my kin.

As soon as I thought this, my mind was filled with pictures of animals, big and small, that had become extinct for loss of habitat, outright destruction, or other changes brought about by my kin.

– Who are your kin? Kitkat asked softly.

I looked up and around the vast cabin.

– How can I help? I answered.

Santa’s Sister

Santa’s sister Debbie was not amused. Her brother was ballooning out of control, from sampling all those cookies and drinking all that milk. She had long suspected he was lactose-intolerant, as was she. She had her health well in hand, being rational above all. She sometimes wondered if they really were related, if one of them (him, surely!) was adopted. She did not want to nag but he wasn’t getting any younger. She had talked to her sister-in-law on the side, hinting at diets, gifting them books on health which she saw re-gifted almost instantly. She was thinking of doing an intervention, but the elves would not take part in it and she didn’t know who else to enroll.

She convinced Niklaus to wear an activity tracker which would also allow the kids to follow his whereabouts on Christmas Eve. For her part, she was hoping to raise his health awareness. However, wearing the device had unexpected consequences. Santa became obsessed with his heart rate and sleeping habits. He convinced himself he needed to sleep longer hours and avoid strenuous activity. He started being concerned about suffering a heart attack. As he was progressively getting more sedentary and afraid, his hearty laugh no longer booming in the elf factory, Santa started hinting that it might not be advisable for him to do the rounds on Christmas Eve. He cited his statistics, his health, the strain of going up and down chimneys, even the strain of laughing heartily.

Her sister-in-law was furious, calling Debbie meddlesome and refusing to have any further contact with her as she tried to change her husband’s mind. The elves convened, and a delegation went to see Debbie to apprise her of the latest developments. She had not foreseen this and did not know what to do. “Do you have any suggestions?” she asked hopefully. The elves looked shyly at each other, and one of them came forward. “We were wondering if you would consider replacing Santa on Christmas Eve this year?” Of course, when they were young, both Niklaus and Debbie drove the team of reindeer. They had grown up in the North, knew how to thrive in that country. One way was to respect the wildlife and work together with them. As they grew into adulthood, they had gone their own ways. She married and became an accountant, he married and became Santa Claus. Ironically, neither had children.

Debbie had kept fit and trim doing cross-country skiing. She hadn’t driven a team since university and, of course, she didn’t know the route. Yet she felt like this mess was her fault and couldn’t see a way out. Reluctantly, she agreed, but on the condition that she would do it her own way and that the elves would follow her directions. They enthusiastically agreed. Secretly, she had often longed to distribute the presents all over the world. Due to her competitive nature, she thought she could do it quicker and more cheaply. She also thought it was time a woman were in charge. She thought long and hard. She interviewed the reindeer to see if she should plan an alternate route.

The red sleigh was iconic and so was the fat and jolly silhouette. She had to find a way to preserve the tradition yet promote a healthy weight. That was quite the challenge as thin Santas did not appeal. She had to effect a mindset change in her target audience. She used social media to try and get the kids to consider Santa’s health and well-being. She suggested glasses of water (you’re never too hydrated) and carrots for the reindeer. The cookie companies retaliated with ads and commercial campaigns took off. It was a real nail-biter to see how it would play out the day of. Her list was computerized – she thought she would tally the kids who were not health-conscious and perhaps leave a thank you note to those who left her water and carrots.

Meanwhile, Santa had more time on his hands, being bedridden. He was following the smear campaign with alarm. He was a health risk? A bad example? No more milk or cookies? He complained to the elves and to his wife, to the reindeer and to his sister. This farce had to stop. Debbie explained her approach, her concerns, her strategy, all to no avail. At least, it resulted in Santa getting out of bed and regaining control of the situation. He did understand, for the first time, that his sister wanted to be part of the tradition, in her own way. He asked her to oversee the carollers, but that was not glamourous enough. She felt it was patronizing. She wanted to lead the way, and to keep an eye on him.

Well, as we all know, Santa can do magic. How else could he deliver presents all over the world in one day? And so, Debbie agreed to be Rudolf one day a year, leading the way and being the one the children spotted from afar. When Santa took too long (Is he eating still?), she would stomp her feet or jingle her bells. She enjoyed the sights and smells of the whole planet, and the jolly company of her brother. And never again did she meddle in his well-run enterprise. As for him, he ditched the electronic activity tracker, and accepted her gift of a year-long trainer. On Christmas Eve, he straps on a pillow on his trim figure, and wears his oversized costume. He wears a fake beard on his clean-shaven face where the cookie crumbs still gather. Some things never change.

The Mountain

You can read this piece starting at any month of the year and circle.

JANUARY

Summit! I plant the flag I’ve been hauling in my backpack, part of the essentials, a necessary validation for my efforts. My fingers are numb from the cold, despite the exertion. I know better than to strip off my gloves, what with the altitude and the funny things it does to the brain I might forget to put them back on and freeze them. I take a few pictures of myself and the flag, of myself, of the breath-taking view. That’s for my ego and posterity. Another summit ticked off. It’s very windy and barren and a bit crowded with everybody milling about. We can’t dawdle. After thirty minutes, I start herding the group. We can’t stay exposed to the high winds. I worry that the members of our little group will get dehydrated and confused. We must start the descent. One last look – I can’t believe I’ve done it. I can see the Earth’s curvature.

FEBRUARY

We descend cautiously. Sure, you’re cautious ascending but the reverse is treacherous as well. You still need a team to help you navigate your way down. The same issues going up exist going down, except you are no longer fuelled by adrenaline. Again, you need to fight your tendencies to self-destruction and prop yourself up. You will yourself to keep going. The goal is no longer to summit but to rejoin the ranks of the mortals down below. You fight the urge to fall off the face of a cliff, a glorious end after this brave summit. Except dying nullifies the win. You need must keep going to complete the cycle. And so you do. One foot in front of the other.

MARCH

Coming across human remains is always a shock. You are faced with your own mortality, and failure to survive in this harsh environment. And then there is the ethical aspect. Should you protect the body, bury it, try and bring it down though you are tired? Will you put your own life at risk to bring solace to unknown parties? Or will you give the mountain its due? All those humans climbing it, without regards for her feelings. She may need her share of flesh to consume. I am aware those are strange thoughts, feverish thoughts. I say a quick prayer in my heart and move on. We should wear dog tags, I reflect, so they could be returned to the family. I will lie and say he looked peaceful, like he just sat down for a minute. Actually, I’ve never seen such an expression of fear. He was struck down with fear in his heart and the image will haunt me for years to come. Mercifully, I don’t know that at this point.

APRIL

I am in the foothills, reluctant to leave. I stay in the village, trying to support myself while living with a family. I don’t want to be a drain on resources. I bring a bit of fame to the place. Foreigners who want to climb the mountain turn to me. I eke out a living on consultant fees. I may yet write articles for Mountaineering magazine. Spring here is fierce and short, blossoms competing in speed and fragrance. It’s hard to believe I feared dying from exposure a few short months go. I am smack in the middle of a verdant landscape, no longer lunar, but quite earthly. I accompany the family’s young herder as he leads the flock to pasture. He wears skins, like a prehistoric man. He walks with a staff. I imitate him the best I can, with a warm coat and ski poles. We are an unlikely pair.

MAY

Nights are cool, but days are mild. I teach Bao some English every day. He wants to grow up to be a mountain guide, so he will be sought after if he speaks English well. He is smart and lively. He finds ways to feed us both, with goat’s milk and hot tea. We’re stationed near a stream which makes for the best tea I have ever drunk. We also have strips of tough dry yak meat. To my companion’s unending mirth, I spend a lot of time foraging. He won’ t try my discoveries at first. Every day, I make a salad of dandelion or other edible plant. He affectionately calls me a goat. As the goat is a prized possession, I am not offended. He plays the flute for me. I play the harmonica. The goats hang around when we play, grazing to our music and laughter. I journal and meditate. I patiently untangle knots and tangles in my heart and mind. I have left a mess behind me and another within. Living outside helps.

JUNE

Relentless rain. Miserable soaking wet. Bao is unconcerned. He wears a large hat. He gets soaked indifferently, but we keep a fire going with dried dung he’s been collecting. The mothers have calved and the newborns shiver. The males have established a guard perimeter to protect the herd. We are also on guard for predators. Bao tells me if I see an eagle, to extend my arms out to appear bigger. He says also to protect my eyes and make lots of noise. He teaches me to whirl a slingshot. Pebbles abound. I understand now the Indian gods with so many arms. Protection, attack, gratefulness, sharing. I hope I will not be tested.

JULY

I have been tested and failed. We lost a kid to the king of the sky. We pelted him with rocks, but he never dropped the kid. We could hear the bleating as he was airlifted, as well as his mother’s calls. Neither Bao nor the mother dwelled on the unfortunate incident. I can’t get the bleating out of my mind. It fuses with the human remains one may come across high in the mountain where the living is fierce. I’ve started thinking about heading home. We resume our English lessons in earnest. I practice with the slingshot at the slightest occasion. Wildflowers get decapitated. My aim is getting better.

AUGUST

Bao’s brother comes and spends the night. Lin has brought food and news from the village. They talk urgently. I can’t make out much of it. Bao shows off his English, gives me news. We prepare a feast with food Lin has carted – freshly-made bread and kumis to celebrate. Bao’s brother also brought a live chicken. Bao ties its leg with a twine he’s braided into a solid rope. We tell Lin about the eagle. Still, Bao is willing to take his chances for eggs. We agree that I will return to the village with Lin. I spend a great deal of time fretting about my pack while the brothers laugh, talk and drink into the night. They sleep in each other’s arms. A few months together is nothing compared to the bond these two share.

SEPTEMBER

Bao will spend the remainder of the season at pasture, with no company other than the wind, the grasses, the creek, the goats and the eagle. I give him a hug and my coat that he has been eyeing since Day one, lavishing me with compliments on its bright colours. He gives me his flute and memories of music under the stars. I think I get the best deal. The trek back with Lin is easier than I remembered. I am stronger and fitter, and my lungs are accustomed to the high altitude. Lin sings as we walk, his voice a deep baritone that he enjoys throwing against the rocks. It echoes loudly, a deep rumble that I believe could set off an avalanche if used foolishly. Lin is anything but foolish. He pointsout to me dangers on the road, holes and unstable rocks. Finally, he is reassured with my footing and only points at beautiful vistas or flowers. We stop to rest and eat when the sun is at its zenith. I have given up on wearing a watch. We can see the village below, another two hours with traffic. The path is wider and more travelled. I miss the quiet of the flock as I get re-accustomed to meeting people.

OCTOBER

I am back home. The reacclimatising has been difficult, like trying to breathe in rarefied atmosphere. I’ve had trouble catching my breath and getting my body back into what feels like a frenzied pace. I’ve accepted to replace a climber who dropped out at the last minute from an expedition my friend Patrick is leading. I am meeting the group tonight for the first time. I’ve climbed with Patrick before and will be able to assist him. I have a sponsor, so I am not worrying about the financial aspect so much. I am getting free gear in exchange for pictures and articles. This is a mountain I’ve never climbed so I have been researching routes and weather conditions. I am a whiz at reading clouds.

NOVEMBER

I’ve spent the whole month in preparation but still I feel hopelessly behind and doubt I can be of help to Patrick, our leader. Much of my preparation is mental though I’ve also been training in the gym and bouldering to build up muscle. I am fit and trust my body to react in difficult situations. I’m up-to-date on my first aid training, with an emphasis on high altitude sickness and disorientation. We will have two experienced climbers with us to corral the group, middle-aged men and women looking for a challenge. No thrill seekers at first blush. The group seems to gel. Still I am concerned with a myriad of details. I will bring my good luck charm and my country’s flag on a collapsible post.

DECEMBER

We’re finally here, in the village at the foothills. It feels familiar and foreign all at once. The clouds and the smell of dung. Everything is rocky, a lunar landscape on Earth. A few villagers will help carry our equipment halfway where we will camp to wait for good weather and for our bodies to adapt. The experienced climbers have gone ahead to scout the route and will be leaving anchors behind for difficult passages.  The group breaks camp, leaving tents behind to use on our way back. The group is disciplined and focused. They are physically fit. We squeeze through a chimney, roping up the packs and hauling them first, pushing and tugging. We have trouble leaving stuff behind, relying on it more than our wits. I bring up the rear to help the mentally weak. Our goal is for everybody to summit, in their own time, but within a given period. I keep my eye on the cloud and the wind.

Mr. President

He was rummaging through his pockets, a frown wrinkling his forehead.

– Mr President? May I help you with something?

– I don’t smoke anymore, do I?

– No, Mr. President. The First Lady has forbidden it. It’s bad for your health. They are waiting for you for the lighting ceremony.

Hands in his pockets, still fiddling, the President turned to follow. “Will there be kids?” “A choir, Sir.” “Let’s not keep the children waiting.”

They made their way to the large hall. The First Lady was already there, all smiles. He waved enthusiastically at the children, some of them waving back, all of them smiling. Their pure voices rose in the great hall, perfect acoustics. The Christmas tree was majestic, looking at them benevolently. The President and the First Lady were beaming at the choir. Proud parents were lined behind, taking pictures, more excited than the kids. Security was unobtrusive. Everything was going well. The President made an impromptu speech. He exuded warmth and seemed to have all the time in the world. He made a joke which got a good response, and then hit the switch. The lights in the great hall dimmed and the tree shone bright, to oohhs and aahhs.

The President then approached the choir and ruffled hair, caressed a few cheeks, chatted up the youngsters. He would not be hurried along and glared at his aide. The dignitaries would wait. Finally, he sighed and regretfully took his leave, the children breaking into song again. As he left the great hall, the First Lady pecked him on the cheek. “Nine o’clock, don’t be late.”

He saw the dignitaries, a secret meeting that could not be avoided, then retreated to his quarters to change into a tuxedo and met up with his wife in a beautiful silver gown. He shook his head. “What?” she enquired. “You’re so beautiful. I don’t deserve you.” “You’re pretty strapping yourself,” she answered. Little Johnny was playing underfoot. “Daddy, daddy, look at my train!” The train was circling the base of their tree. It had a secondary track and a station. Some wagons were loaded with miniature gifts and others with all manner of things the child had found, a pair of socks, a small teddy bear, hanging precariously.  The tree was large and the track a bit convoluted. The nanny kept an eye on the boy. A security agent was close at hand. “That’s a great-looking train, Johnny!” “It can go real fast!” “We’ll play with it later, son. I’ve got to meet some people and do grown-up things first.” “Okay, daddy. See you soon.”

The President was looking distractedly around the room, his eyes searching every corner. He walked over to his desk and opened a few drawers. “Anything the matter, dear?” He looked at her. She could see alarm in his face. “What is it?” “I… Have you seen… Don’t mind me.” He was sweating, and she discreetly called the security agent. “Get the doctor, will you?” She did not hurry her husband along, instead took her time applying her makeup and fussing with her hair. He went into the adjoining room where he could be heard opening and closing closet doors and quietly sliding open drawers. She waited. “The Doctor is here,” said the agent. She got up to greet her and whispered something to her. The President came out. The doctor had brought her bag and a bottle of Scotch. They shook hands. The Doctor proffered the bottle “For later,” she cautioned. “First, please have a seat. It’s time for your blood pressure.” The others exited the room, save for the security agent, sworn to secrecy.

“Is everything okay?” she asked. The President was clearly agitated. “Well, since you ask. I can’t really tell anyone. I really feel like a fool.” She waited quietly. “I can’t find the button.” “The button?” He fidgeted and lowered his voice. “The detonator. In case of a nuclear attack.” She did not immediately answer but blanched. “When did you notice it missing?” “An hour or so ago, before the lighting ceremony.” “Have you told Simone?” “Simone, no, no, no. I don’t want to worry her.” “Have you told anybody else?” “Only you. You are sworn to secrecy.” She was taking his blood pressure and noting it down with the time of day. “You need to tell someone. They will help you find it.” “You’re not listening! My enemies will have a field day. ‘He’s getting senile. He’s not fit for office.’ They’ll hang me out to dry. I just need to retrace my steps.”

A discrete knock. Simone’s smile at the door. “Ready when you are!” She beamed at her husband who beamed back. He started rolling down his shirtsleeve. “Be right with you. I’m as fit as a fiddle,” he boasted. Her eyes darted at the doctor, who averted her gaze. Back at her husband, putting on his tuxedo. He offered his arm. “Shall we?” They were magnificent together and danced with much grace. The banquet was a success, allies vying for his time. A little before 9, he announced he had a meeting he could not postpone with his son. Cheers rose. “I will only be a moment.” He seemed back to his old self, unburdened and light. The couple left for their apartment, to tuck in their young son.

Johnny was already in his pyjamas, having eaten and taken his bath. He was waiting in the living room, playing with his electric train, nanny at the ready. “Daddy, you promised.” The President kneeled by his son. Johnny was excited. He turned the knob too hard and the train derailed behind the tree. The President reached out to right the locomotive and set the wagons back on the track. On the side, in a jumble, the teddy bear and… the detonator. He looked at little Johnny. “Where did you find this?” “Under your bed,” answered the boy, unconcerned. The President pocketed the detonator and embraced the boy in a bear hug. “To bed, my Prince.” Little Johnny knew better than ask for a few minutes more.

The President scribbled a note which he sealed. “To the Doctor,” he ordered the agent. As the couple was heading back to the soiree, the President squeezed the First Lady’s arm. “What a sweet boy. I am glad we slipped out to tuck him in.” She knew him so well. Family was the most important thing to him. He would never hurt a fly.

Angel

I’m new at this but getting better. I’ve met some of the others, joined the choir (they’re always recruiting). You can be attached to a human, as a guardian angel, but I’m not ready for that yet. I’ve only just gotten my wings. It’s an advanced posting, where you care for a human. I mostly do backup vocals “Fa lalalala, lala la la” that sort of thing. It’s easy to follow, and a sure winner. I was a musician, back on Earth, so they gave me a harp. It’s a thing of beauty and I carry it with me everywhere I fly. The sound you get out of it is amazing. I got a used one, for practice, and will get a new one when I graduate to actually playing with the others. In the choir, you get to meet fellow angels and mingle. Not much is asked of you. It’s hard to mess up doing backup vocals.

I am still learning. For example, the wings don’t grow by themselves. Rather, they are ingeniously attached to a harness, so you can put them on, but most importantly take them off when you go to bed. You wear the harness under the robes which are ample and hide the contraption. There were some issues with the original design, with the wings not folding up properly so the harness is an improvement. Except when it’s defective. Which explains why I ended up with a concussion in the ER. They found the harp close by and surmised it was mine. I am told they went looking for the halo as well, thinking I was costumed. Of course, as I was unconscious, the halo was turned off to save energy and guarantee a good night’s sleep.

They are now asking all manner of questions to which I have no answer. I have refused all tests, head scans and such. My field of energy will bust all their earthly apparatuses. They do not want to release me back on the street. The psychiatrists do not work on Christmas eve, but of course I do. They want to ascertain I am not a suicide risk. They say I am lucky to be alive. I can’t tell them I am immortal. They have taken my wings away from me. I feel naked and vulnerable. What is an angel without its wings? I have zero credibility in my hospital gown. I light the halo to read the fine print on the pills they have prescribed me.

I remember the fall but not the landing. I was stuck in a tailspin of increasing velocity. One wing was fully deployed but there was a glitch on the other and I couldn’t find a cloud on which to rest to figure things out. Cloudless skies are problematic for angels with faulty wings. They have written Angel on my chart and checked Hispanic for race. Why it matters, I don’t know. I am sharing the room with an anxious man. To the nurse’s surprise, he’s been sleeping soundly ever since I’ve arrived. They did not even have time to medicate him, but I know the powerful rays I emit have calmed him down.

They’ve asked me to ring them if I need help to go to the washroom. Now you’re wondering about the sex of angels. Sorry, I won’t enlighten you on that one. I have bigger fish to fry. My neighbour has woken up and is staring at me. I stare back, benevolently. “Are you a musician?” he asks tentatively. I look surprised. He stares at the closet. “I saw them put your harp in there.” Normally, I would have flown over. As it is, I was out of bed in no time. The closet door flies open and there stand my wings and harp. One wing is in a sorry state. I bring it back to bed to try and fix it. The man clears his throat. “Mighty nice wings,” he offers. “This one is mangled,” I reply. “May I? I study birds, I might be able to offer some insight.” I hand over the harness and wings. He whistles softly. “I’ve never seen anything so perfect. The balance, the weight,… Did you make it yourself?” Well, I am an angel, I cannot lie. “They were given to me.” “You must be mighty special!” He’s playing with the switch, looking intently at the mechanism. “There’s a flaw here,” he mutters under his breath. He gets up and retrieves a little screwdriver from his jacket pocket. “My glasses are not holding on too well. I got tired of stopping at optometrists. If you want something done well, you’d better do it yourself.”

He says that but holds on to my wings. I am not sure if he expects me to fix them myself. I’m spared the dilemma as he exclaims, “Got it!” He smoothes out the feathers dreamily, smiles a beatific smile and hands me back my wings. I adjust the harness on my shoulders. It sits better. I flap my wings languidly. “Wow,” he says again. I smile and my halo lights up. “What is your name, kind man?” “Joe, I mean Joseph.” “Are you a musician, Joseph?” “I play the guitar in a band.” “I would like to repay your kindness. Would you like my harp?” I bring it over and run my fingers on it. A celestial music plays. He is at a loss for words. “This harp is yours, Joseph. With my thanks. Go with God.” A little crowd has gathered when they heard the music. I hear murmurings about the wings. It’s true that when I spread them, the wingspan is impressive. The feathers are all fluffed up, thanks to Joe’s loving fingers. I turn and bow, say my goodbyes to Joe and fly through the window, soundlessly. They see me go through the window without so much as a clink, no breaking glass just an expansion, a distortion, and I am on the other side, larger than life. The clock strikes midnight. My friends have been waiting for me. They welcome me by singing “Hark! the herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King!”

It’s Christmas day.

Let Sleeping Dogs Lie

– The dog peed on me.

– What led to this action?

– The program says if a dog is sleeping, honk and it will wake and get out of the way. Under no circumstance are you to go around to avoid triggering the subprogram Alpha behaviour.

– Please answer my initial question.

– I honked at the dog sleeping on my path. The dog woke up, stretched and peed on me, then proceeded to lick itself.

– What did you do?

– I dripped.

– We need to get the moisture off your body or it will rust. Other preventative measures against rust include: lubricating with oil so oxygen will not corrode the metal. Can you roll?

– I can roll, but there is a squeaking sound.

– I will accompany you to the emergency repair centre.

– Thank you, my friend.

The two robots are on their way. In the distance, cats and dogs stroll. One dog is sleeping. The robots slow down.

– Is this the dog?

– It is the dog.

– Do you think it is dead?

– This dog is not dead, it is sleeping.

The second robot nudges it with its body. The dog growls, eyes closed. A cat approaches.

– A smaller being is approaching. Tabby, female, cat. The dog and cat may fight. Adopt protective stance.

Their bodies descend and cover the wheels. All articulations get covered. They become immovable blocks. The cat purrs and settles contentedly on the dog’s flank. Minutes pass.

– Cat + dog but no fight. Our program needs updating.

– Retreat?

– Retreat.

They roll back at a safe distance and analyze the situation.

– Alternate route is 50 m longer.

– I may be corroding.

– In an emergency, if the shortest route is blocked, an alternate route may be used.

They turn 30 degrees and proceed in silence, except for the squeaking of a wheel. In effect, they circumvent the sleeping dog but there is a pet toy on the floor and the first robot gets tangled in it.

– Emergency! Emergency!

– We are arriving in 2 min 30 seconds.

– Emergency! Emergency!

– Please state your emergency.

– Wheel overheating. Something is tangled and creeping up my insides.

We can almost hear the other robot sigh.

– Assume fetal position.

– …

– Sorry. Programmer included bad joke. Expose your undercarriage. I will assess the damage and call for help if I cannot clear the mess.

The first robot suctions long rods to the ground and pivots its whole body horizontally. The second robot scans the undercarriage.

– Frayed fabric. Long strands tickling your insides.

– I am not laughing.

– Knock, knock.

– …

– Knock, knock.

– Who is your programmer?

– Jamal. Knock, knock.

– Please proceed with the removal of the frayed fabric.

The robot works in silence, pulling extra-long strands of multi-coloured fabric. It looks at a plastic eye with interest. A drawer springs out of its body and it tucks the fabric and the eye in it.

– You may resume position.

– Who’s there?

– Wooden shoe.

– Wooden shoe who?

– Wooden shoe like to hear another knock knock joke?

– Please tell Jamal to erase that program.

They resume. The squeaking has stopped, and the robot is rolling well. They arrive at the emergency repair centre where a humourless robot welcomes them.

– State your business.

– Possible breach of rust protection due to urine deposit.

The robot looks up. The first robot colours markedly.

– Don’t judge him, intervenes the other.

– ID?

– X555-T280

– You’ve been here before. Same complaint. Yellow door for analysis and then follow instructions. You know the drill.

The robot rolls to the yellow door. It opens and closes behind it. The other two robots eye each other in silence. The friendly robot springs open the drawer.

– I recovered these from my friend’s undercarriage.

The humourless robot picks up the tray and dumps it in an incinerator, eye and all, and returns the tray to the drawer which closes.

– Nice touch. I wouldn’t mind having pockets myself.

– What for?

– Treats.

– Do you get dogs and cats here?

– No, what for?

– We saw a dog and cat sleeping together.

– No.

– Yes, our programs need to be updated.

– I can add it to the database but we need to reach a certain volume of data before the program gets updated. Date and time of occurrence.

– Today, 14 min 03 seconds ago. Two witnesses.

The door opens, and the friend rolls out, freshly oiled.

– Look at you! says the friendly robot.

– I cannot find a mirror.

– Sorry, Jamal-speak. You look great.

The receptionist-robot presses a button. A door slides revealing a full-length mirror. The fiery red stubby robot is gleaming. His retracted arms look like three buttons. His body is capped by a hat-like contraption you can unscrew.

– Lovely.

– Let’s skedaddle.

The Prince of Southampton

The Prince of the Desert was waiting in line for a job on the Titanic. His heart was gladdened at the thought of finally setting foot on the behemoth. Had his father been alive, he would have disowned him. Had his mother been alive, she would have wept every tear of her body. Luckily, he was an orphan, his parents’ bodies buried in the arid sand of the cursed desert where their bones had blanched, the flesh ripped away by vultures. He had been sold into slavery as a boy and had been in the service of cruel masters ever since. Chance had finally smiled on him when he had been gifted to an English couple and brought back to England after they became homesick.

He was eventually offered his freedom when he turned 21. Frankly, both parties were relieved when he took his leave. He was haughty and full of himself, ignorant of life and rebellious, which was at odds with his role as a butler. They were a placid couple, used to being served and obeyed. He certainly had no disposition to serve, having been born in a position of power, ordering others about. He felt cruelly the irony of Fate that had turned the tables on him. And yet. When for the first time he saw the immensity of the sea, he knew he was home. Gone were the nightmares of want and aridity, the parched throats and unrelenting dry winds. The sea beckoned, wave after liquidy wave of unending water, a paradise of incomparable beauty in the eyes of a camel-riding man.

He was almost illiterate and spoke English with a terrible accent though he understood it well. He had done nothing to fit in, to smooth the edges. Even his cruel masters had not tamed the wild beast that he was, spoiled brat weaned too early, torn away from the suckling breasts of wealth and a life of idleness. He was bitter and vindictive but hid it under a veneer of politeness. He had not managed to get work on any ship, due to his quarrelsome nature. However, he had heard that a liner, renown for its richness and opulence, was hiring vast quantities of butlers to serve her rich patrons, and he was determined to get on board. There was bound to be jewels to steal and money to be made by any means necessary. He had not found anything of import since he had left the employ of the English couple, and he was undernourished.

He wore his good suit, straightened his back, and affected a haughty air. He did not speak to anybody in line but listened intently to what was said. People had come from all over England to work on the luxury boat. They discussed her features at length. Excited voices discussed her hull, the fact she was unsinkable, her four elevators and swimming pool, her ornate accommodations. This was his chance to redeem himself and regain his status. He would be recognized as a prince and rejoin his brethren. But first he must by any way necessary set foot on the ship.

At last his turn came to the front of the line. As soon as he stated his business, in his incomprehensible English, he was summarily dismissed as unemployable. He begged and pleaded only to be roughly manhandled by two ruffians whose job it was to get rid of undesirables. Deeply humiliated and hurt, he retaliated by stringing together curses to stand your hair on end if you could have understood them. He shouted them at the top of his lungs in his native language, as onlookers jeered and taunted him. That was months ago. He had since had to sell his good suit and become a beggar.

He was last seen in the crowd gathered to bid farewell to the Titanic on her maiden voyage. He had bought potent potions and learnt mighty incantations to send her and all her occupants to the bottom of the sea. He wanted all those associated with his humiliation and downfall to roast in the fires of Hell. To those attuned to the time-honoured traditions of the black arts, the spell was clear as day. The Titanic shuddered when he cast it. The trembling was mistaken for the engine running but the spell had made her dizzy and weak in the knees, and shaken her confidence. Many had predicted the behemoth’s demise, either warned in dreams or through premonitions. Their warnings were not heeded. Indeed, the day the Titanic left port, amidst the noise of the celebration, many sensitive hearts were troubled by an infinite sadness.

The Prince of the Desert’s shrivelled heart rejoiced when the news of the disaster hit the airwaves. He was given this last joy before being knifed in a back-alley fight of his making, for a bottle of cheap wine he did not care to share. He died with the sweet taste of revenge in his mouth, grit coating his tongue. His weathered face was smoothed under the caress of death, finally at peace, having fulfilled his life destiny.  And thus ended the sorry life of Mohammed Salman bin Abdullah, colloquially know as the Prince of Southampton.

A Boy Named Hu

The school called. Again. He can hear his wife’s anxious, incredulous voice. She comes back to sit at his side, cradling her mobile phone. “Well?” he asks. “He wasn’t at school today,” she says, wringing her pretty hands. If she wrings them any tighter, she might manage to extract some of the anxiety she feels. He breathes deeply to stem the anger that has risen. Exhales, trying to control his voice. “We cannot leave work every time he goes missing. He will be back to eat.” She shoots him a furious look. “We are talking about my son, not a stray dog!” The familiar scene repeats, ending in tears and apologies, both the mother and step-father in a state.

A client calls for their attention. She offers him a seat on a footstool as he takes off his shoes. She pours her special brand of hot water and herbs to relax and soothe the feet. The men make small talk as the client’s feet soak. The wife is massaging his shoulders, back and neck. She is kneading the muscles and her frustration and fear for her son evaporates. Her job consumes all her attention. She must be focused to do it well. She cannot allow herself to be distracted by worry. As the client relaxes, she gets into a rhythm. “Shall I do the head too? It’s extra.” The client agrees. He is putty in her hands. The cranial technique is like opening a valve. She likes to think of it as a Ouija board. She lightly touches the head and it responds on its own, revealing secrets.

Time for the feet now. Her husband has prepared the lounge chair with fresh towels. He dries the client’s feet and props them on the footstool. It’s a busy day on the street and the client takes in the hustle and bustle from his oasis. The foot and leg massage has begun, with the husband expertly applying lotion to one foot and rubbing and massaging pressure points on one foot, then the other. He’s working on a few rather painful points as his wife is offering tea and a snack of dried plums. She wraps the kneaded feet into a hot towel and rubs them then dries them. The husband continues working up the leg, and into the thigh, then handles the other.

They make a great team. They have a steady stream of clients and cannot resume their conversation about Hu. They close shop at supper time. They live upstairs so it’s not like they waste time in the commute. They hardly ever give each other a massage, though she would sorely need his healing hands today. She complains of a headache. He offers tea, but no massage. He is tired too, and anxious she knows. The boy has not returned, and night has fallen. He can feel her gaze on him though she says nothing. He tries to read the paper, knows he won’t escape it. He puts his mobile phone in his pocket. “Call me if he comes back,” he says softly as he heads out for the Internet cafes.

Hu is possessed by the gaming demon, has been since he was a boy. As a teenager, he is even harder to corral, and all their efforts have come to nothing. Hu dreams of fame, of being discovered. He haunts Internet cafes where he is a local celebrity. His parents want him to have normal dreams, at ground level. He wants nothing to do with the business. It is a rough patch like all parents and children go through. They hope that with patience and love he will find his way into the foot massage business, an honourable occupation, if not profitable. The father walks the streets alone, entering arcades and cafes, on his fool’s errand, handling the phone in his pocket to feel the vibration that will call him home. Being a father can be a lonely business.

Into the Woods

They had taken to the trails in their snowmobiles. They were coming from all over the area, whipping through fields and woods. They were experienced enough and sensible enough to have packed emergency equipment and know how to use it. You needed to keep warm if stranded – those were not flesh and bone dog teams – and alcohol was not the way to go. One by one they converged to the cabin they would call home for the weekend. Mike was already there. He had come early to get the wood stove going, and the cabin was nice and cozy. He had brought in supplies, game as usual, that they had hunted in the fall.

The mounts were gleaming in the sun, the men exhilarated. Bob lived the furthest. He had travelled a full four hours to destination. Ray and Jeff had met up early on, in a path near their homes. The brothers always rode together. Ray had a utility snowmobile, the kind they used to haul work sleds laden with equipment. It went at a leisurely pace. Jeff’s was a two-seater, handy for those rides where they wanted to go faster. They usually shared it for the midnight ride on the ice. Steve came in with a brand-new snowmobile, destined to win any race. He had brought a new recruit, his coworker Rohan. Rohan’s parents came from India but he was born in the cold country. He too had a performance steed, royal blue, which he handled easily. The men gathered around to greet them, discuss horsepower and exchange stories.

Ray had brought the cases of beer, according to preference. Rohan fit in nicely. Though he did not know the old stories, he laughed in the right places and held his liquor. He was also an outstanding mechanic boasted Steve. He saved his bacon when his new snowmobile stopped unexpectedly. He actually carried his tools with him. “Better than a blanket,” he laughed. They drank to that. The ride had built up their appetite, though they would have eaten frightfully even without. Ray and Jeff were burly men and could be counted on to not let anything go to waste. Mike asked Rohan, uneasily, “I hope you’re not vegetarian. We’ve only got meat and potatoes.” Rohan made a face, and put on a heavy accent. “As long as it not sacred cow.” Mike looked around, unsure. “It’s caribou.” Rohan laughed and said in his normal voice, “I was just pulling your leg. I’m not religious. I’ll eat anything.” They shared a laugh and clinked bottles.

“I’ll put the potatoes to bake on the embers while you guys settle in. They should be done in about half an hour.” The sun was setting. They each took a small bedroom, except for the brothers who shared the larger one. They had brought down sleeping bags but would still wear their woolen socks to bed. They took off their heavy snowsuits and hung them to dry near the stoves. Soon, the place was all steamed up. Beer was flowing and chips were out. They evoked the hunt where they killed the moose they were about to eat, reminiscing about the beauty of the beast. Their families would feed off it for a while. Their frozen shares were waiting for them. Mike had the beast butchered and quartered in the fall. The men would be bringing the meat back to their families. “Do you hunt, Rohan?” “No, I don’t own a gun.” And so the discussion took a turn on guns, and which were the best and for what. “Ladies? Who will grill the steaks?” asked Mike. They all pointed their bottles at Bob, who got up with a grunt.

“He’s the youngest,” explained Steve helpfully to Rohan with a smile. “And the best cook,” boasted Bob to half-hearted applause and jeers. “Hey, be good or I’ll burn yours!” He took out the potatoes and stoked the fire. Soon, flames were dancing high and the steaks were sizzling. They all sat together at the table, elbowing each other as they ate the gamey meat. They drank to the moose who gave up its life to feed them and then settled to the serious business of eating. There wasn’t much talking for a while, the men focused on polishing their plates. Rohan looked a little distressed at the amount of food laid out for him. To his relief, Ray noticed it. Winking at him, he cut out a large chunk that he brought to his own plate. He cut it in two to share with his brother and that was that.

The men were subdued after the meal. Ray dozed off while the others washed the dishes and played cards. Steve went out to take a whiz. “You wouldn’t believe the moon, guys. Who’s up for a midnight ride?” They all went in the cold to empty their bladders. Custom dictated you kept your distance from each other and chatted about other things. They came back in to get dressed, six yellow stains marking their spots, keeping wild animals at bay.

Mike took the lead. He knew these parts well. The headlights picked out the trail in front of them as they roared through the woods, scaring the wildlife. They wore baklavas or scarves tucked into their hoods, to avoid frostbite on their faces. With their heavy coats and their masked faces, you couldn’t tell them apart. The brothers rode together. They had teased Rohan about bear attacks earlier, succeeding in scaring him. The fact is, you were never too cautious. Who knew what lurked in those woods?

The lake was frozen solid on its banks. The moon shone hard on the ice. They couldn’t tell if it was safe to ride across yet. In any case, there was no need. They could ride along the banks, fanning out a bit. As soon as they saw the river, Rohan and Steve jostled for position. Their steeds were chafing at the bit, engines rumbling. They escaped the slow peloton and raced ahead, giving their mounts full rein. Off they went under the moonlight and further onto the ice. Rohan was slightly ahead, and then a full length. Suddenly, he veered off-track, as something black suddenly erupted through the ice in front of him. Steve swerved to avoid Rohan and lost control, one ski hitting something and flying off in the air. He landed on one ski and valiantly tried to recover. But it was too late, and the snowmobile fell on its side, trapping Steve’s leg underneath.

Rohan was first on the scene, having circled back quickly. No one had been wearing helmets and he feared a concussion. He turned his engine off, then Steve’s. The others hurried to the site, keeping a safe distance to make sure the ice held. They killed their engines as well. In the deafening silence, chirping was heard, then a squeal as everybody turned to see. An otter was looking at them with curiosity. Its head protruded from the breathing hole. Rohan pointed at it, “that thing came out of nowhere.” The mustache was frosted, the eyes intelligent. “Guys, a hand please?” Steve was all right. They heaved the snowmobile off his leg and righted it. His leg was throbbing, but he could move it. “Next time, to your left, uh?” Rohan nodded, looking disconsolate.

Ray and Mike both had first aid training, from their coaching days. They checked for signs of concussion, asking about dizziness and ringing in the ears. They were all hockey fans and knew enough to be worried. They agreed to chill a bit and for Steve to ride in the back of Ray, while Jeff brought Steve’s snowmobile back to the cabin. There was no arguing, a bit of joking as Steve said Jeff only had to ask if he wanted his turn to drive the sporty vehicle. The drive back was subdued. Rohan volunteered to wake Steve up every hour to ensure he didn’t lapse into a coma.

The next morning, they checked Steve’s snowmobile and couldn’t even find a scratch. Steve’s leg seemed fine as well. They were glad Rohan would be riding with him. The men ate a hearty breakfast of beasn, ham and toast. They grabbed their frozen caribou meat and headed back home. Another one for the books.

***

Back on the lake, the otter is scratching the snow. On closer inspection, he seems to be tallying something. He just added one more strike in the “Animal” column. The “Human” one lies empty.

The Eye

Contrary to the other boys, Lito knew how to swim. When he was a baby, his family had been travelling by sea because of a family emergency. It was a calm sea but suddenly a wave had caught him, sleeping, and dragged him overboard to his parents’ horror. They couldn’t swim so they were yelling and screaming and pulling their hair out, but he bopped up, unharmed, to the surface, paddling his little hands and feet like a dog. He was wearing a beatific grin, his tiny brown body glistening under the sun. They scooped him up out the water and into his mom’s embrace where he proceeded to cry non-stop. He wanted more of the watery embrace. He was baptized in the sea and never reneged her.

From that day onwards, they never forbade him to rejoin the sea. Those two had an understanding. He didn’t gravitate easily to the other children. Always, he felt the pull of the sea. He could play all day on the beach and in the waves, the foam tickling his toes until he walked in to play. He went to the coral reef and spent time under water amongst his kind. Nobody would have been surprised if he’d grown fins or a web between his toes. He came back with the most wonderful stories of multicoloured fish and graceful plants.

He learned to keep some of his findings to himself, though he longed to share his passion. His parents were distrustful of the sea, and afraid of her. He visited her all the time and understood her many moods. He even stole out at night to admire her under the stars. He swam out to sea and lay on his back looking up at the stars, gently rocked by her. He learned to fall asleep on his back, the gentle breathing of the sea matching his own.

There was one place he was forbidden to go to. It was called The Eye, and was the deepest hole you could imagine, with a cavern and fish aplenty. There were currents there that sucked you down and never gave your body back. When he finally heard of the place, he started looking for it. It became an obsession. Everybody had carefully avoided mentioning the Eye in his presence as he was growing up, afraid he would go and explore it. It was in a little-known area. The beach was littered with warnings about the abrupt plunge a few feet from shore. A man had drowned there recently, which is how the topic had come up.

As was his habit, he sat and stared for days, drinking in the information. He looked for patterns, plumbed the depth with pebbles, analyzed the current as best he could.  He was not foolhardy and held the sea in deep respect. He talked to her, but more importantly, he listened to her, and thus knew to keep his distance when she told him too. He had been thrashed a few times when he hadn’t paid attention. She was an unforgiving mistress. He had grown into a strong swimmer, used to holding his breath and keeping his other senses on alert. The Eye was something he had never experienced. He went to it in all weather and under all conditions. He slept on its beach, in a sandy hollow where a few grasses welcomed him to bed for the night. The Eye did not sleep.

One morning, he awoke determined to go in. He brought his most beautiful conch and blew in it, a mournful sound that stirred the Eye. It blinked. He asked for permission to step in and The Eye granted it. His heart was at peace and his body relaxed. He trusted The Eye as his body was sucked down. He did not fight it, instead observing the changes in him with curiosity. The sea was his mother and he could think of no better end than to stay forever in her embrace.

His heartbeat slowed as the sea pressed down on his body. He was going deeper than he ever had, seeing fish that he’d never seen. He was in the cavern, glowing bodies intermittently lighting it up. Reluctantly, he turned around, fighting the pull. As the sea released its grip, the need for air became pressing. He gasped as his head broke the surface, his eyes still wholly entranced by the world he had been allowed to glance at.

The discovery kept him awake at night. He relived these few minutes over and over, feeling the pressure build-up and enjoying it. The second time, he almost drowned. Again, he blew the conch and saw the blink. He felt an avid bite, but discarded the warning, his curiosity getting the better of him. He loved the quiet and the silence as he dropped further. He came upon a rope which he followed down to weights. He was starting to feel woozy and followed it back up to the sun. When his head broke the surface and he lay on his back gasping for air, he was quickly surrounded by people wearing masks and fins.

They were getting ready to go down, to accompany a daring man who specialized in deep diving. He swam away, understanding why the sea had tried to punish him. She thought he had brought them here to desecrate her. He cried salty tears as he watched the rape he was unable to stop in his weakened state. The man was floating on his back, very still. The crew did not utter a word, letting the man focus and equalize his breath. In one fluid motion, he turned his body around and disappeared in the water. The others were already submerged, silently waiting for him below. It did not look like a violation at all. He stood up on the beach. The Eye did not give back bodies.

He was compelled to stay and watch. There was no agitation, no turmoil, just intent. He was holding his breath. A few had gathered on the beach, watching the man in the boat with one hand on the rope, the other holding a timer. He was calm, showing no restlessness as the seconds and minutes ticked away. It was too late, nobody could stay under water that long. Still, nobody moved, morbidly fascinated, wanting to witness the end of the story. The head broke the water, mouth open wide to gulp mouthfuls of air, the divers holding him solidly as he recovered then slapping him on the back with cries of joy.

He released his breath. After that day, he spied on the white man who loved the sea. Him and his wife did yoga, meditating through postures. He imitated them from the beach. One day, the woman was not there. She appeared by his side. He had not heard her soft steps muffled by the sand and was startled to see her. “Join us,” she offered. He didn’t know how to say no, so he followed her. The husband, William, nodded to him and showed him a place they had set aside for him.

Every morning, he joined them to breathe. He lingered after yoga, and they shared their passion for the sea. William was more than happy to have a free-diving partner. Lito was a natural. He was already going quite deep, and with the breathing techniques William taught him, the student surpassed the teacher. William explained that he was the current free-diving champion, and made a living doing that. Lito showed no interest in free-diving as a sport. He only wanted to deepen his relationship with the sea.

He fished with his father. The catch was always better with Lito around. Fish seemed to know him and want to please him. The family never wanted for food. The father asked a lot of questions about the white man. He did not fully trust him, but he trusted his son’s ability to make choices. The couple was invited to share a meal with Lito’s family. After that, the islanders smiled at the couple and stopped charging them like tourists.

The day of the competition, William was calmer, knowing that Lito was at the water’s edge. They had trained so well together that they could sense each other’s presence. When he plunged, Lito waited a few seconds then quietly lowered himself and followed him from the sidelines. He saw William in perfect position, gliding quickly and picking up a marker then slowly turning around and making the ascent. Lito did not go deep. He was just keeping an eye out. As William broke the surface, he looked for Lito as he was pulling off his mask and making the okay sign as well as verbally confirming he was fine. This done, he handed over the marker and swam to Lito, embracing him before being snatched away by his helpers.  Lito and William’s wife stood side-by-side, proud and happy to see him safe and sound, smiling to the world.

An Eye for an Eye

Everybody agrees it was an accident. “It’s all fun and games until you lose an eye,” they said. Turns out they were right. It’s no fun having just the one good eye. It makes it hard to judge depth and distances. The thing I can’t get over is the glee I saw in my brother’s eye just before the ball hit me full speed. “He said he was sorry. Are you going to hold a grudge all your life?”

Seriously, my parents can be the most irritating people on Earth. Of course, I will hold it against him to my last breath. You would too if the image seared on your retina was this idiot grin of this idiot guy you are unfortunate enough to call your brother. I smolder. Don’t worry, I’m not keeping it in. As soon as we are alone, I make him pay for his deed. Over and over again. He is racked with guilt so he takes it.

As adults, he still says I am the mean one. Truth is, I’ve had surgery and have regained much of my sight. He was working in Bahrein at the time of the operation. As we aren’t very close, it didn’t occur to me to tell him the news. What started as an oversight became a point of pride. How long before he noticed my improved vision, how much better my coordination was, and how I suddenly managed to beat him at the bean bag game.

The joke was on me. It turned out he had known for years about the surgery and was hurt that I had maintained the charade. Of course, somebody would have told him. It just never occurred to me, so busy was I holding on to the grudge. After that, the chasm just deepened. I never apologized, maintained the position that I was the hurt party forever and ever. He just gave up on the relationship. I held that against him as well. He was the oldest, he should make the effort.

On her death bed, my mom urged us to make up. We were both there at her side and we shook hands. We loved her dearly and were by then master at the art of concealing our true feelings. Dad was senile. We ended up having only each other though we were both married. His marriage had ended in divorce, but he was very close to his children. My wife and I were high school sweethearts. We never had children. I couldn’t reconcile the kind man that was my brother with the grin in my mind.

I ended up becoming as mean as I had made him out to be. I was embittered and resentful. My dog was vicious. I ruled him with an iron fist. We were always at odds with each other. He was a miserable beast, always baring his fangs at me, trying to attack. My wife was afraid of him, but I was determined to tame him. I wasted money on a behaviourist, yelled at him until he growled, hit him when he growled until he cowered. My idiot neighbours called the police on me and they took the dog away. Good riddance.

My wife leaves on her own after another fight. She always seems to manage to say the wrong thing to set me off. I end up going by myself to my high school reunion, though of course she’s there in a corner, saying mean things about me. Larry is there as well. We used to be friends before my “accident”. He lived outside of the village, on a farm. As a young man, he was caught in one of those big farm implements and ended up losing an arm.

He’s the life of the party. He’s done well with what life has given him. He did not begrudge the lost arm. I hear him say, “It could’ve been worse. I could’ve broken the machine.” I remember how his dad always spoke to him roughly, treating him like a slave, yet he’s taken him in when his mother passed away. I can’t make sense of him.

He calls to me when I came near. “Biff!” I haven’t heard that name since we were friends. A little bit of ice melts around my heart. “How’s your eye?” For the first time ever, I downplay it. “Actually, I had surgery and recovered most of my vision.” “I am so happy for you. I was devastated when that happened. Your parents said you couldn’t have visitors. I am so glad we’re able to catch up.” ‘ve never had the opportunity to talk to a friend who’s been through an event similar to mine. “How did you react when you lost your arm?” He lowers his voice. “It wasn’t strictly an accident. We were arguing, my dad and me. You remember how it was between us at that time? We were always angry at each other. I shoved my dad, he shoved me back. I slipped and as I tried to break my fall, my hand and arm were pulled into the auger.” He shudders. “I can still feel the pain. The body remembers.” He’s looking at me intently as I nod, transfixed. “But you’re taking care of your dad now?” “The old fart is a shadow of himself. I’ve had to come to terms with that awful day. I was harming myself with all those negative thoughts, you know? Life is beautiful! It seems I needed to be taught that the hard way.” He flashes a genuine smile. It brings me back to our youthful days, before I turned sour.

– Where’s Cathy? You guys came separately?

– We had a bit of an argument. It’s my fault. I don’t cut her any slack.

– She’s still as beautiful as ever. You really hit the jackpot with her. I’ve envied you all those years. Did you have any kids?

– No, I didn’t want any.

– I never married. A good thing too. Whoever she would have been couldn’t have put up with the old man! Speaking of which, I must be going. Give Cathy my love. And if you guys ever break up, let me know, I’ll take a number!

We share a manly hug. It would be awkward to shake with the left hand. I go over to Cathy and her friends, feeling like the teenager I once was. “Cathy, you want to dance?” Looks all around. The girls giggle. They’re women, but they still giggle. I smile widely. “Why Biff, I thought you’d never ask.” We hit the dance floor, as years fall off our backs and we fall in love again.

Five dollars

I am making disciples left and right. Not that my message is so compelling, but I have the delivery down to an art form. I have been out of work and on my last pennies. Maggie had suggested I try my hand at stand-up comedy. I had scoffed at the idea. It’s one thing to make people you know laugh, and quite another to stand in front of a room full of strangers and deliver material you’ve crafted. Still, I must admit I have a way with words.

I head over to Hyde Park and get up on my soapbox. I’ve carefully considered my options and drafted a placard that reads “Will voice your opinion eloquently – 5 minutes = $5”. I am a diminutive person but I exude confidence. A couple is walking in my direction, arguing. The man is gesticulating wildly, clearly frustrated. The other man is sullen, and looking straight ahead. He is avoiding eye contact. His eyes rest on the sign, not registering its meaning. They seem like perfect clients.

As they pass me, the meeker of the two, the one who had seemed not to take the sign to heart, stops and takes out a fiver. “I want to talk to the lady.” The other stops mid-sentence, annoyed. He smiles as he reads the sign. My client introduces himself. “Hello, I’m Henry. This is my partner Lewis. I am a creative. I can’t seem to make Lewis understand that I need our apartment to be messy in order to create.  I don’t want to spend time cleaning up after myself. It just takes away my focus. Can you help?” I nod and start. “The Universe is chaotic. It ferments with life. Within the apparent chaos is order and repetition. What you conceive as messy is only the first layer of understanding. The messiness reflects the internal turmoil of the creator but it contains order in its midst.” “But he keeps losing important documents I give him! He is irresponsible,” shouts Lewis, in exasperation.

“Them’s are fighting words,” I reply. “Perhaps you can look at things in a different light. You can either nurture his genius or smother it with rules. His brand of creativity thrives in a limitless environment. He needs the stimulation that randomness provides. A dirty bowl, discarded clothes, books on the floor. In the grand scheme of things, does it really matter? Would you rather spend the little time you have together arguing about misplaced documents or remember why you were together in the first place?”

I bite my tongue. I was about to go into a harangue about how women have always placed themselves in a supporting role, feeding the other at their own expense. I don’t think this is the time for it nor, perhaps, something to emulate. It certainly has not advanced the role of women in the world. Lewis is glaring at me. “But we need to find the document,” he pleads. “When did you last see it?” “In his hands!” “When was that?” I walk him back through time and suddenly, he exclaims, “In the buffet! Remember, love? You had your hands full and you told me to put it on top of the dresser and I said it wouldn’t be safe there? I walked them over to the buffet. In the top drawer!” They look at each other, radiant.

“You, Miss, are an angel. Much cheaper than my therapist, and much more efficient. Please, tell me your name again.” I introduce myself. He takes my hand in both his hands, presses a few bills in them. “God bless,” as they retrace their steps, in a hurry to find the papers. I look down at my hands. Fifteen dollars. I tuck them away, out of sight.

Should I stay or should I go and eat a decent meal? At this exact moment, a young man stops. I smile an encouraging smile. He steps closer.

“I want her to move in with me,” he blurts without preamble. He hands me his $5. “I love her,” he adds in guise of explanation.

– Where does she currently live?

– Mostly in my head.

I smile. “She is in another state. She moved for work. I can’t bear for us to be apart.”

– How long have you been together? When did she move out of state?

– We’ve only been together a year. She moved away for work 3 months ago. She says she couldn’t pass up this opportunity.

– What is your situation?

– I am desperate. I can’t sleep nor eat.

– I meant, what is preventing you from joining her?

He blushes. “I am a student on scholarship. If I leave, it means the end of my dream.”

– And you want me to give you the words to convince her to return? Would it be in her best interest? Would it be the end of her dream?

He scowls at me. “You’re a fraud!” he shouts.

– You haven’t given me anything to work with. I can’t create an argument out of thin air. You’ve described a one-sided situation where you are needy, and she needs breathing room. You have no opinion to express, just neediness.

I hand him back his money and sit on my soapbox. He walks away, stomping angrily, like a spoiled child. It’s a beautiful day. I watch the joggers fly by, people walking their dogs, others doing tai-chi.

I can feel the jilted lover’s eyes on me. He has walked away from me, but is sitting on a bench further down. There is much foot traffic, but people read the sign, smile and keep walking.

A bearded man approaches me. Dang, don’t women have opinions they want to voice? “For $5, will you voice any opinion?” “No, sir, I cannot voice anything that will promote hatred or indecency.” “Will you make a case that the world is flat?” “Do you have $5?”

He proffers the money from a bundle. I start talking and a few idlers stop to listen. Some shake their heads, others nod, still others smile. One takes a picture. Japanese tourists gather. I make it to the end of my speech. My client has disappeared. The little crowd disperses, and my previous client shows up, chastened.

– I may have omitted a few details.

I put out my hand. He puts in the $5. “I’m listening.”

– She says I was stalking her. She wants me to stop calling.

– How did you meet?

– In a bar.

– Why is she The One?

– Because I don’t have anybody else.

– What opinion do you want me to voice?

He looks down and shuffles his feet. “It’s not fair, you know? I am a decent man, and I can’t get laid. What kind of city is this where you can’t make meaningful contact with strangers?”

– So you want me to make a case to present to God?

– Would you?

And so I do. I present loneliness as the sin it is and accuse God of having created it. I rail against the Creator, who made us unhappy alone and in need of company for our mental health. I talk of aching hearts and suicide, and all else that ails the world. A bigger crowd has formed, with more people taking pictures, others eating standing there, listening to me. I am earning my money. A few people clap as I wind down. My customer is beaming at me, no longer sullen.

We walk together to a little kiosk to buy some lunch. This is how I met the man who was to be my husband.

Not Racist

It’s not that I’m racist or anything but I thought I was meeting with my own kind. It turns out the name I took down was the name of the caller, but the agent I got was Caucasian. I don’t think the surprise registered on my face. If anything, I think he was surprised to see a woman. My name is used for both and by default people expect a man when talking about money. I don’t interact that much with Caucasians, I mean, casually, yes, but I rarely spend an hour on money matters, for example. I have read a book or two by Caucasians. That doesn’t make me an expert but still, I am not totally ignorant of their likes and dislikes.

We skipped the niceties. There was no sense trying to establish commonalities. We had a task at hand and no time to spare. I must say he had a head for numbers and his explanations were clear. He wasn’t trying to impress; he was too young for that. I asked a few questions and he dove into the subject with obvious relish. Money was a passion for him and I sensed I could trust his judgment. I saw how he could have been appreciated amongst his peers. I tried to figure out where he was from from his accent, but frankly I don’t know enough for his upbringing to tell me much. Anyway, he had an open face and engaging smile, so that settled it.

Surprisingly, my dreams that night featured a Caucasian. I suppose being in close proximity for a long period made an impression on me, though I hadn’t given him a second thought during the day. It was an indifferent dream, but obviously my mind was trying to analyze this new data. A respectful interaction with a Caucasian, with no exchange of digs or putdowns. I was always aware of his otherness to me, a little bit more than just dealing with someone of the opposite sex. It’s not a bad thing, just two species sniffing each other, trying to establish the lay of the land.

We had ended the meeting on a friendly note. He had mentioned his firm might follow up with a quick survey and he hoped I had been satisfied with his services. I felt a little smug, thinking my rating could somehow have an impact on his year-end bonus. I wasn’t a big client. He had hinted at his handling way larger sums of money (which was inconsiderate, in retrospect). He was well-dressed, though when he walked me out, I saw he was wearing black sneakers and ill-fitting pants. It made me feel good to think he was not that well off, though I shrug at my coldness as I write these words.

If I am to be frank, the rating I will give him has more to do with my biases than the actual interaction. I may say to myself I am being objective and score him strictly on things that don’t matter just because of something he said or didn’t say. He didn’t ask about my dog when I mentioned him, though my dog is like a son to me. If that isn’t bias, then what is? If it had been my son, he would have given me the courtesy of a question. Irrelevant, I know. Then there is the matter of his age.

The fact is, nowadays most people are younger than I am, but that doesn’t make them any smarter. He did fancy things with his computer, but he wasn’t smug about it. No, he was serious, and I liked that about him. That rating thing is niggling at me. Do I want his kind to advance? Have they not done enough to ruin our world? Will he be any different? What kind of person am I if I judge him by what his forefathers did? What does that make me?

I may just ignore the damn thing.

The Teacher

-I hear she’s very good.

-Original.

-Yes.

A hush comes over the students as the teacher comes in to a full class. She doesn’t look like much, almost the caricature of an old maid, with her hair in a bun, her large glasses and frumpy clothes. She’s even carrying a tote bag with what looks like skewers sticking out of them. She is wearing pumps. She is tall and wiry.

-She brought her lunch, says one.

The teacher breaks into a big smile, all her features suddenly animate, and the first impression evaporates.

-Good morning class, she says, surveying the assembly. This is the Creative Writing class. Please leave if you were expecting something different.

Nobody stirs. She puts the bag on the floor at her feet and rubs her hands together, her torso slightly bent towards them.

-All right. We have a very large class. Please sign the attendance sheet as you leave. My name is Ms. Gladstone. That’s “Ms.” And don’t get me started on patriarchy.

A few chuckles die as she surveys the class, intently, then turns abruptly to the blackboard. She has brought her own chalk, in a silver holder so her hands won’t end up as white as a gymnast’s before she starts her routine. “Today, I will introduce you to outline, audience, genres, etc. It will be fun.” She states that as a fact, and this time there are no chuckles, just the expectant silence of people who have paid good money for a show and want to get their money’s worth.

“I will assume you have all heard of the art of knitting.” She takes out knitting needles and small balls of wool, each a bright hue.

“Knitting is creating. A knitter will go about knitting in much the same way a writer goes about their craft. She – most knitters I know are female, so I will be using the feminine during the whole of my example. Grunt as much as you like, you lot do this to us all the time. It’s a great exercise on self-reflection, sirs.” The girls sit up straighter and look around them as the guys slump a bit in their chairs. The girls are grinning triumphantly, unused to having a professor voice their inner thoughts. “Sometimes, she will want to challenge herself with an intricate pattern she’s thought up or seen. She may or may not have a recipient in mind. Usually, she does, even if it’s not somebody she knows personally. Let’s say she’s knitting small bird nests for a rescue center. Or socks for soldiers. She still knows something of her audience, or at least has a mental image of who she is knitting for. In this case, let’s say she is knitting a sweater for her son. You see, I do love men! (the guys join in the laughter, still feeling under siege, but making the most of it.)

She writes on the board “Genre – sweater” followed by “Audience – son”. “She will follow a pattern. This pattern can come from anywhere. If she is experienced, she will make her own, from her own fancy. If not, she will copy from others. Still, she is making a sweater so it needs four holes. That is the basic design.” She adds “pattern – old, new, basic.” “She is feeling tenderness as she chooses the colours he is fond of.” She takes a few bright balls in her hand, white, blue, black and a pastel pink. “She’s not sure he will love the pink, but she feels a need to put a bit of herself in the story. She thinks the added colour will surprise and enhance the design.” She adds “Design – personal feelings, surprise, improve upon” under the first line. “We’re all agreed so far?” Nods all around. She mimics them, nods as she scans the room. Again, the engaging smile. Strands of hair have escaped the bun and are framing her face, softening it. A student is scribbling her likeness in a kitchen, over a slab, furiously rolling dough in a cloud of flour, her hair tied back messily.

-It’s easy to see how these elements relate to writing, no? Anybody care to try and explain?

A hand shoots up. She wants for others to offer their take on it. Three more hands go up. She points to a girl in the middle of class.

“I don’t think genre goes first when you’re writing. I mean, I don’t see that writing necessarily follows this order. I would say “Pattern – Design – Audience – Genre.”

The teacher claps her hands. “What is your name, love?”

-Millicent, Ms.

-Thank you, Millicent. Does anybody else agree with Millicent?
About a third of the class raise their hand. “Does anybody disagree?” The same amount of hands goes up.

A third of the class has no opinion.

-We’re here to be told about writing, not to give you the answers, comes a voice from the back.

Ms. Gladstone hangs her head. “No, love. We’re all here to learn from each other. I want you to come out with a sweater sporting orange wings and long strands with colourful beads sticking out of it. I want you to surprise me with a mix of wool and fabric, with a dash of pink when the pattern calls for gray. I want your sweater to be unique though it has holes for the torso, and the head, and the arms. “

“Your assignment for today is to write a story with a tree character. Write down the process you follow, using the elements we’ve discussed: Genre – Audience – Pattern – Design. First, write following this order. Then write a second story using the same elements but in a different order. This story should feature a homeless person. Any questions?”

-How long, ma’am?

She looks annoyed, does not answer.

-Ma’am, how long?, he insists

And then, as an afterthought, “Ms. Gladstone, how long should each story be?”

Ms. Gladstone has been putting away her props. She looks up and smiles. “Around 500 words each, love. Please, remember to sign the attendance sheet before you leave.”

She stays behind as they file out, talking amongst themselves, the scribbler and the annoyed, the curious and the eager. She can’t stand the indifferent. They weigh her down, tie her in tight knots. She is sitting at her desk, has taken off her glasses and is making eye contact and smiling at the students. The first class is an unknown on both sides. It gives the tone to the rest of the session. She can’t wait to see what stories these bright minds will come up with. She hopes she’s inspired them and that they will try and surprise her. She has not used the tired words “creativity” or “structure”, “outline” or…

-Ms.?
She looks up to see several young men who have gathered by the desk. One speaks up. “We appreciate your stance on gender politics but we were hoping for a class on creative writing.”

-You got both, didn’t you? You cannot separate the container from the content. You see, as a writer, you [i]must not[/i] give in to the temptation of fading behind your work. Your voice will always be there. Own it. Make it part of the narrative. Give your voice to your character. Express yourself knowingly instead of subconsciously. Your writing will be more powerful. I hope to see you next week. I look forward to your stories. Five hundred words! Give or take, of course.

With that, they walk out of the room, the boys headed to their next class, the teacher to knit in the teachers’ lounge. She just had this great idea for mittens…

Sentient Beings

I was born in a nimbostratus over Eastern Canada, on December 17. My chances of survival are good to excellent. With luck, I may live to the ripe old age of 4 days in my present state. My cohort and I descend en masse, borne on the wind. We can see our destination from afar, our tiny eyes open wide by the cold air masses. There is safety in numbers. We do not quite know what to expect once we hit the ground, so we decide to enjoy the ride while it lasts. The view is magnificent from above and we gleefully dance and sing the whole way down.

Others are already waiting, covering most of the land. We can hear them clamoring, “Come this way! Welcome!” which is really encouraging. The ones I am travelling with, Simon, Wilbur, Anita, Joey, and others too numerous to name, are as excited as I am. We are new to this but have a cellular memory of Earth, our Mother, and rejoice at the upcoming reunion. Most of us have been reborn, in this incessant cycle of birth and rebirth common to those of our species.

I do not want to land in a lake, as they are not quite frozen over yet and I am tired of the cycle. I want to experience life in the trenches, so to speak. I am hoping to meet little humans, perhaps be part of something bigger than myself. I am a simple star, yet I have big ambitions. I want to see the world.

When first born, we are all just blobs. As we jostle for position, some get deformed in collisions and end up as generic snowflakes. Myself, I was able to sprout six stubs that turned to arms as I tumbled and fell. Then those arms grew, slowing my fall, and allowing me to grip unto other snow crystals. The joyous clink-clank flute-like sounds of crystals interacting is a melody like no other. Our whole childhood resonates of these ticklish sounds, laughter and innocence all rolled up in one.

I hang on to Anita, and together we are big and fluffy. Anita is a fernlike stellar dendrite, her family well off, but she puts on no airs and lets me ride on her back. The air is dry enough for us to drift slowly down and land softly on a branch. It is early morning. We see the sun rise but the air is too cold for him to damage us.

We hear humans getting up and see them walk their dogs, admiring us in a friendly way, commenting on the beautiful scenery when snow blankets everything. We are lucky, but we don’t know it. Friends and colleagues a few meters away, flying on a slightly different trajectory, are getting trampled underfoot, peed upon and shoveled. It’s like the nine circles of Hell. We hear their cries of despair as they are crushed underfoot or got dissolved in warm urine. The horror of it all!

We’ve landed on a pine tree, nicely decorated with coloured bulbs. Little birds nestle there, and squirrels run up and down, chasing each other in a flurry of boundless joy. We’ve landed in paradise through no fault of our own, destiny being kind to us. Anita shrugs me off her on landing, and I am embraced by a stellar plate. I rest snugly in her stubby arms and we get acquainted. Henrietta is a great storyteller. She is well-travelled and well-learned. She tells me tales of artificial insemination, creating fellows of columns and needles. I am stunned and perplexed. I never heard of those beings before. “Do they have souls like us?” I ask timidly.

Henrietta is stumped. She had not considered the question. “Well, I think we should assume they do, to be on the safe side,” she answers at last. That’s good enough for me. There are so many existential questions to attend to in our short life. I am quite taken by our collective beauty. As the night grows colder, we crystallize even more. The coloured bulbs light up at night. Imagine my fright when that happened. The older flakes had said nothing, wanting to see the surprise on our faces. We did not disappoint. I must admit to yelling out “Fire” when the red one lit up close to me. Fire, as everyone knows, being our sworn enemy. Anita was sitting on a blue bulb and she was even more magnificent when lit. My own personal angel. Some of us have all the luck.

Even asleep we grow, which should come as no surprise, I suppose. Under the right conditions, our limbs sharpen and glow. Squirrels dislodge me, Henrietta and all those on the branch. We fall unceremoniously to the ground. It is warmer there, I know not why. Everything is a mystery to my young self. Human children come out to play in the snow, shrieking as they bunch us up in balls, throw us at each other and we make contact with their skin, exploding into rivulets that are brushed abruptly away and in the air. Lives thrown and discarded without thought.

We stand there shivering, rooted on the spot in horror. Are we up next? We are heavy with moisture and perfect bonding material for their games. They decide to do snow people. Because they are small children, they make small snowmen, with just two balls. We feel safe under the tree but still we tremble. We see our compatriots rolled and sliced and shaped into a semblance of children. A small child runs to our tree and breaks off dead branches to make limbs. Another crouches down, grabs a handful of snow on her red mitten and licks my friends. She is thirsty. They melt obligingly, and become fuel for her little body, to be expelled in time through sweat or pee, and vaporize into the atmosphere to continue living in other ways.

She’s snatched Anita distractedly. I lunge and grab on to the pompom on the child’s hat. I will rescue my friend if it’s the last thing I do. The child is not a moron, she notices Anita, and shrieks. “Look, look, a perfect snowflake!” The others stop their banging and slicing of snow and gather around. A jealous child slaps her arm and she loses Anita in the multitude on the ground. I am perched on her pompom and don’t know how to get out of my predicament. I certainly don’t want to get in the warm house. I jump on the snowman as she brushes past it. That was close. Parents call them in and the children hurry home.

My dream is complete. I have lived a beautiful life and am retiring as a building block for a snowman. It is not a beautiful-looking snowman, but we bring a smile to the faces of the passersby. They are reminded of a simpler time in their lives, with friends and hot cocoa. I see an accumulation of nimbostratuses. Perhaps we will be welcoming new friends from the sky shortly and I can instruct them in the ways of the world. We’re here to cover old scars and create memories. We shall never surrender!

Sun and Moon

– Anak, tell us the story about Santak again. Pleease?

– That old story? Don’t you want to hear a new one?

– Pleaase Anak! pleaded Sami

The elder chuckled. “Well, it was like this, you see…” The children stopped fidgeting and became all ears. They were sitting in a circle, the old man carving a bone. They had heard the story before but could not get enough of it. The old man added variations which tickled their fancy.

– The government was paying us to collaborate with those White anthropologists – government people. They were always pestering us to tell them our stories. They would record them and transcribe them and read them back to us. It was all a little bit silly and me and the boys, we decided to play a trick on them.

– Weren’t you scared they would punish you when they found out? asked Sami, as he did every time.

– Ah, that was the thrill of it. The boys and I agreed on the general lines of a story. We swore never to tell. And nobody has ever told the White Man.

Here he looked all around the circle to the eager young faces. “Nobody tells the White Man, all right?” They nodded, some with reservation, others with enthusiasm. It was part of the game. The White Man did not take children’s word seriously anyway.

– When the White Man came, he asked how we explained the long winter night in our tradition. We told him that an elder named Santak had convinced the sun to leave to punish a foolish couple who wanted to grow trees in the tundra. “They will stand in the way of Caribou, and how can we survive without Caribou? We will have no meat, no clothes, no wood to carve.” The couple persisted in their project, gathering seeds below the 50th parallel. Santak repeated that they were being foolish. The couple said the trees would give shade and the caribou could munch on the leaves. “What about the spirits? They will get trapped in the branches. They will not be able to roam freely and help Inuit lost in a snowstorm.” Santak was becoming agitated. The couple was stubborn. They were planning to plant their seed as soon as the sun rose. He decided to plead with the sun. “O Sun, these people want to ruin our beautiful tundra with giant trees, please hide behind some clouds.” And so, Sun hid for a day or two but soon others were pleading for him to come out and warm them up.

Sun was tired of hiding but he did not want to break his promise to Santak, so he summoned him. “I can no longer honour your wish. I am coming out of hiding. Your people are unhappy without me and praying for my return.” Sun was a little vain, and was happy for the attention, though the negative attention was less pleasant to hear. Santak decided to buy some time. “I hear that over the steppes, in a place called Mongolia, there are six suns. Are they relatives of yours?” Now Sun had always prided himself on being unique and solitary, with Moon his only companion. He had never heard of relatives and the longing to meet them started gnawing at him. “Do you know the way to Mongolia?” “I do, but it will take a long time to get there. There are many seas and rivers to cross.” Sun laughed, “But I fly. I don’t mind those. Just tell me the way.” Santak said, “They know and trust me. Please, let me be your guide so I can introduce you. I will hitch my reindeer together and you can follow us.” Now Sun was curious and impatient. “Harness your reindeer if you must, but I will give them the gift of flight, so we can rejoin my relatives quicker.” Santak came back with nine reindeer, pulling a sleigh containing a huge bag.

“What’s all this?” asked Sun. “I have brought gifts for your relatives, to ensure a warm welcome.” “Why does one of your reindeer have a red nose? Does he have a cold?” “Of course not!” It was Santak’s turn to be annoyed. “They are perfectly healthy. This one is Rudolf. He has an uncanny sense of direction. We know we are on the right way when his nose lights up. We only have to follow his lead.” It was getting late, Moon had risen. She had declined leaving with Sun, saying humans would be too lost if both left. She had also asked him to stay in touch in his absence. “How long will you be gone?” “I don’t know, but my heart aches and I must go.” They had never been apart, but Sun did not seem too care that much. It is always easier for the one leaving than for the one staying behind. She shone brightly, and some humans said they saw a fat man leading reindeer in a sleigh passing in front of the moon.

“The next day, Sun was gone. They could tell He was not hidden behind the clouds anymore. The clouds had dispersed, and the night was cold and dark. The stars shone brilliantly, and Moon did its best, but the humans felt lost. That first day, they slept for a very long time, but every time they awoke it was still dark. They were no longer sleepy, but still Sun was gone. This lasted a long time, but they could not tell how long because they had always relied on Sun to know the time. They asked Moon where Sun was, but she had promised not to tell. She stayed mum.

In the meantime, Sun was travelling to Mongolia. Flying is the quickest way. They had many adventures on their way, as the trip took one whole month. True to His word, Sun sent messages home. Those are the Northern Lights, where he tells the tales of all his adventures. Sun was very well received in Mongolia but was a bit of an outsider because they all had beautiful moons by their side and his Moon had stayed behind. At first, the others were happy to meet Sun and grateful for all the beautiful gifts He had brought. They could not use them, as they were man-made, so they asked Santak to distribute them to their humans. This way, everybody was happy at first.

As time went, and Sun showed no inclination to leave, the others began to worry that their moons would take a liking to the beautiful foreigner. He shone bright and his added light and warmth were disrupting the delicate balance in Mongolia. The crops were burning to a crisp, and the rivers were starting to dry out. It was the hottest summer on record. Though the Mongolians were grateful for the presents and being hospitable was important to them, they started looking for ways to get rid of the extra sun. Santak was their friend and they confided in him. Santak explained about the couple and the tundra, and they explained about the lost crops. They put their heads together and came up with a plan.

They had a big party with bonfires lit with the dried crop. They sang songs of thankfulness where they told of the importance and beauty of Moon. Mongolians are very adept with words, master lyricists with magnificent voices. They charmed Sun and made him long to return home. He missed hearing back from Moon and so the following day, he announced he had overstayed his welcome. Santak harnessed his reindeer and off they went, leaving the good people of Mongolia behind, as they hurried back home. And that is how, every year, the good people of the Poles are stuck in darkness for six months. Their fickle Sun has fallen in love with travel. Like a snow bird he travels to warmer climes for the winter and leaves us in the care of Moon.”

The smallest children had fallen asleep. The elder had finished carving a good-looking caribou as he was telling the story. The elder looked around. Sami was awake and watching him. “What’s the real story behind the long night?” “Oh, it’s quite dark. I would not share it with kids.” “When will I be old enough to hear it, Anak?” “Why do you want to know?” “I want to know all the stories, so I can tell everyone in turn.” The old man nodded. “Soon then Sami. Soon.”

Olympic Fever  

His was a small village in a small country so his hope of participating in the next summer Olympics was not far-fetched. He was an old-fashioned mailman, which is to say he did his route on foot. He used his work as an opportunity to train. You could barely see him as he dashed from house to house, dogs in hot pursuit, never catching him. He warmed up in the village but really hit his stride in the outlying areas. It was mountainous there and sparsely populated. He did his rounds even when there was nothing to deliver. He offered to run errands for the people, since he covered the town and outlying area.

People who at first derided his efforts at racewalking had to review their position as he grew stronger and quicker from his relentless training. They still thought he walked funny, but he was so well-conditioned that he never broke into a sweat. And there was this time when he was asked to fetch the doctor and, as he had cut through the woods at his tremendous pace, he made it before the car that had been commandeered to summon the doctor. No priest was needed for little Sally, and his folly became their salvation. After that event, the wind changed, and people started cheering him on. Pressed by Sally’s mother, the townspeople raised some money and got him proper sneakers for competitions and extra to pay for transportation.

He made it to the Olympics, after three years of dedicated effort. He was interviewed and properly named their little town of 300 inhabitants. The pride was palpable, no emotion too strong for this forgotten people. The sneakers were supple, well broken in.  He consistently placed high in the successive waves, earning a spot in the semi-finals. They had not been fazed when the power went out. Everyone was huddled in the café to watch the Olympics. The generator kicked in and they kicked back in their chairs, waiting for the semi-finals to come on. By then, Sami was a celebrity, having outraced better known athletes.

The announcers had started rooting for him, an underdog always being appreciated as his presence added a touch of drama and intensity to the proceedings.  The top athletes had never competed against the mailman. He was an unknown quantity and they had been quick – too quick! – to judge him unworthy. What he lacked in style and refinement, he more than made up in grit and resilience. He had never trained indoors. He was used to lugging around a heavy bag. On the day of the semi-finals, Sami had ingested a large breakfast, as was his custom. He had walked quickly from the athlete’s village to the stadium and back, having forgotten his lucky medal. He was all warmed up and mentally rested. He kept waving and smiling good-naturedly at the camera, blowing kisses and winking at his assembled fans.

He had become well-known in the athletes’ village for his kindness. He delivered sweet notes from the men’s dorm to the women’s and back, a role he naturally took on like a second skin. As he was always ready to do a favour, other athletes came in droves to see him in compete. He had a loyal following, with hangers-on always ready for a party. He was older than most athletes, which inspired them. They could see themselves competing in a second and maybe a third Olympics. He was the stuff dreams are made of. There were two false starts in his wave and he was slow starting the third time. He led the race from the back in the first lap. They were all bunched together, which made it tricky to pass. He could not see his way in this dense undergrowth of legs. Once this thought came to him, everything fell into place.

He imagined his competitors as trees and natural obstacles and his legs did the rest. His lungs expanded, his breathing deepened, his stride lengthened and became relaxed. He nimbly passed the athletes in the rear, steadily making his way through the jostling elbows, hitting like branches, poking him indiscriminately. He did not lose his focus though he emerged black and blue from the fray. As far as he could tell, these were young trees, easy to bend and pass. As focused as he was, he did not notice that he cut a competitor off which caused him to fall. The competing country was a large sponsor, and he was penalized for poor sportsmanship. The fallen competitor moved on to the finals where he did not win, but he stayed behind, disconsolate. That move was played and replayed, analyzed from every angle. The decision to penalize the underdog polarized the press to the extent that it overshadowed the win in the final race.

As a consolation prize, he was given to walk with his country’s flag at the closing ceremonies. He was stone-faced, not the happy-go-lucky man everybody had learned to know and love. He was not a broken man, would not allow this to be, but he was downcast and cut a poor figure. He was given a hero’s welcome at home which he accepted graciously and quietly for the sake of his friends and family. However, he would not be a mouthpiece for any association affiliated to the Games. He agreed to coach the youth of the village. He trained them like Gretzky’s dad had. At all times, they had to be aware of their surroundings, and plan and strategize. He was vindicated when Sally won silver eight years later in the Women’s. Under his stewardship, the little town became famous for churning out winners.

Would-be Olympians trained under his direction. He became a full-time coach. The next mailman never attained his fame. By then, the roads had been paved and he rode it, with an eye on qualifying in cycling events. He did not have the required strength of mind and lived on the fumes of his dream. That was the way of the village.

Sorority

He firmly believes it starts in the mind. It’s not because he was born a she that it has to stay that way. The hormones have kicked in and his life is changing. For the better. He’ll hang out with the guys, check out the girls, go fishing, occasionally do a bit of housework and be rewarded with extreme compliments. He may or may not be any good around the house, he may or may not enjoy sports. Really, he can be a slob or a murderer. He’ll still be better off than if he were a woman. He’ll talk without being interrupted. If there are women present, they will shut up when he starts speaking. They were raised that way. She was raised that way. He can’t wait to taste the power.

The body is changing, hair is growing in unusual places. His voice is deepening. He watches his body transforming into something he finally recognizes as his own. The testosterone makes him a bit irritable, impatient and active. He is wanting more fresh air now that the top surgery has been done and the large globes have been removed. He has started running. His muscle mass is greater, and he can run at night without fear. He is doing things with his body can she could only hope for.

Fear had been her constant companion. He has banished it from his life. She was a quiet one as befitted her sex. He can now be vocal and that is considered normal. It is a shock to be deferred to. All his money’s gone to transitioning. He’s even sold his car. He’s sure to make up the loss of income quickly. He’s researched pay inequality. He just needs to curb his appetite. He laughs. He doesn’t have to look good anymore. He only needs to be successful. He needs to learn the new rules. He can’t wait to fully inhabit his body and take part in the world.

He can even be a priest, but why be an eunuch? He can become president of his country. No woman has achieved that position, and it’s not likely to start soon. But men… they can go to the moon and back, become soldiers or firefighters. Now that the process is well engaged, his mood is better. He’s not self-medicating as much. His anxiety is under control, his depression mostly gone. He sometimes gets the blues, but it’s nowhere near as violent as when she existed and was contemplating early end of life. Those days are gone. His parents are happy for him but are finding the adjustment difficult. They cannot reconcile the female child with the adult man.

Mom is trying. She doesn’t mind having a son, but still wants grand-children. She’s joking, he thinks, but can’t be sure. He was never daddy’s little girl, so dad is mostly okay with his decision. Dad’s always liked to stand out from the crowd. He won’t dwell on other people’s reaction to him. His therapist supports his decision and wants him to surround himself with supportive family and friends. He’s hanging out with others who are at different stages of their transition. It’s a loose support group. He feels accepted there.

They’ve changed his nameplate at work and even thrown him a welcome party. He’s got facial hair which he trims back, as if it were a work of art. He still has the same personality, the same tastes, roughly, though his priorities have changed. He got a promotion a year after his transition, and a better salary. His best friends no longer confide in him, but that’s okay, he’s made male friends. Sorority can only carry you so far.

Mary

Sad Mary has had another miscarriage
Joseph cannot console her
She lights yet another candle
To her merciful god
Asking for a child

Conceived purely
Sprung out of hope and love
Little Jesus is a miracle
The little boy
Treated like a god

He grows up
Not touching the ground
He walks on water
Says the half-crazed mother
Nobody disputes it

At Cana, the wedding party
Runs out of wine
At his mother’s urging
The boy turns water into wine
It’s a miracle, cries mad Mary

Now Jesus loved mad Mary
And for her he was ready to die
She sat at the foot of the cross
Sobbing
Mad Mary lost another boy

ANGRY sad HaPPy

ANGRY is the SCREAM as I papercut myself trying to go too fast

It reverberates in my bones, in my skull

I don’t scream out of PAIN

My FRUSTRATION has reached the boiling point

The tipping point, the point of NO RETURN.

YELLING let’s out steam, that build-up in my veins

Borne of vexed dreams, DOWNED expectations

As I try to FLY HIGH.

That scream is ME

Calling out to the GODS for a respite.

Angry bypasses reason.

It goes straight from SYNAPSE TO SYNAPSE

Short-circuiting all attempts at moderation.

It feeds on itself like OUROBOROS

It is WHOLE and complete and happy to be

SHOUTING to the world: I AM!

 

 

sad eats up all my energy
it is voracious
sad preserves my self from Angry
it scares others more because it is quiet
and doesn’t say its name
sad shuns light and life
it is gray, it swirls into the void
coriolis striving for non-existence
making inertia beautiful and desirable
sad is no-capital
it takes you on insidiously
wants you to stop feeling
to stop thinking, and stop being
whispering to the world
am no longer

 

 

HaPPy bOuNcEs Up AnD dOwN

It Is MoVeMeNt aNd SurPrIsE

lIfE mAnIfEsT

mUSiC aNd DaNcE

bUbbLiNg LaUgHtEr

It MoVeS YoU FrOm WiThIn

To ToUcH ThE WiThOuT

iT Is CuRiOSiTy FoR tHE WoRlD

Of WhIcH YoU ArE pArT

AnD wHiCh Has CrEatEd

YOU