The Smell

Sir Lewis wrinkled his nose and turned his head this way and that. It smelled of animal waste, neglect and something overripe. He was wearing evening clothes, on his way to a concert. Perfume hid the highest notes of the ripeness, the rancid smell of unwashed body. Sir Lewis always arrived late to avoid the throngs. He was approaching a string of concertgoers, well-clad, the tail-end of the audience. He headed toward his personal box to which he never invited anyone. He went for his own enjoyment and that did not include offensive body odors, small talk and insincere smiles. He wore his own brand of formal wear. To an untrained eye, Sir Lewis could have been mistaken for the maestro in his black coat and tails, but the white silk cravat and elegant pin were uniquely his own.

He settled in his box for the soiree, as the lights dimmed. The concert was about to start. To his dismay, the cloying smell hit his nostrils just as he was opening himself to the first notes. He started wondering if it was emanating from himself and checked the soles of his shoes. He was relieved to find them immaculate. Other boxes were full of white-haired patrons, the ladies in evening wear sporting high-powered binoculars they trailed on the guests in the other boxes. The music was incidental to their enjoyment of the evening.

He tried to relax into the music, but he could only taste the villainy of the smell. Ten minutes in, there was the discreet knock as a bottle of champagne in its iced bucket was quietly wheeled in. Uncharacteristically, he turned to catch the wait staff’s eye. They were well-trained both in avoidance tactics and reading body language. This was a senior gentleman, soberly dressed with an impressive mustache. One expected to see him wearing a monocle. He was rotound, like the Monopoly man, and dressed similarly. Sir Lewis motioned him near. “Dear man, can you smell this foul odour?” The man inhaled, then wrinkled his forehead and nose in alarm. “Oh dear,” he uttered and raised a gloved hand to his mouth in alarm. He was momentarily flustered, but thinking on his feet he said “I will return shortly.”

True to his word, the door opened again before long and in he came accompanied by a young man with shoulder-length hair and a borrowed jacket. The young man nodded to Sir Lewis and methodically searched the floor with a flashlight, finally whispering something to the older gentleman who had been standing motionless by the door. The waiter approached Sir Lewis and murmured, “We are quite certain the smell is coming from the adjoining box on the left. We will attend to this. In the meanwhile, the dignitaries would welcome you if you so desire.” Sir Lewis was a man of action. He nodded his thanks and followed the gentleman to the dignitaries’ box where he was indeed welcome. He knew most of the faces, if not personally, then by virtue of their standing. All this movement was done in semi-darkness as to not disturb the musicians or people’s enjoyment of the concert more than necessary. He was painfully aware of the other bodies around him.

To mask his unease, he grabbed a pair of binoculars adorning his seat. Every armchair was similarly endowed. He watched the box where the old man and the youth were performing their cleverly disguised search. They had wheeled in a small cart with an assortment of drinks which they proceeded to offer. An old woman in a splendid sequined gray dress with matching pearls and badly applied lipstick was escorted out. He thought he saw a large dark spot on her backside. A lady-in-waiting accompanied her. Without waiting to be fetched, he hurried out to intercept the pair. As soon as he turned the corner, the stench hit him. He looked into her unfocused eyes. They were the colour of a stormy sea, and the fog in her mind blanketed them. She was impeccably coiffed, but missing a diamond earring. She had stuck a diamond stud in its stead. He bowed and said, “Madam” as the lady-in-waiting, crimson from embarrassment, hurried past him.

The old lady was inching by and he could ascertain without doubt that she was indeed the source of the smell.  She was shaking her head and complaining, “But why do we need to leave? I want to stay for the concert.” She whirled her cane in wild arabesques. She had stopped her progress and stood transfixed, humming with the music. He started listening through her ears and felt her performing in Venice in its splendid opera house La Fenice. He had heard her as a boy, transfixed by her virtuosity. He approached the women and addressed the white-haired dean. “Lady Daniella, I am Sir Lewis, a long-time fan. Champagne is waiting for you in my humble box. I hope you will not be disappointed with the view. I am afraid the choice of location was based on the best place to hear, not to see.” He took her arm and walked her back to his seat, and handed her a flute of champagne. The old waiter had seen the development, and he came back with canapes and extra flutes.

Sir Lewis was a true gentleman, quick to remedy his faux pas. He blocked out the smell. At the intermission, the lady-in-waiting and Lady Daniella exited. On their return, lady Daniella exclaimed, “Can you believe it? I’m wearing a diaper.” She pointed her cane accusingly towards her companion. “She said I smelled!” When he didn’t answer, she added, “My hearing is still exquisite, but my other senses fail me.” They chatted until the lights dimmed again and the music started in earnest. His charge had fallen asleep, mismatched earrings and all.

The Dare

The soft inky texture, an abysmal black, Elvis on velvet, kitsch and drama. No wonder I felt blue, a strange vertigo as my cheek caressed the soft fabric. What a dare! To lay in a coffin for a night. Pure terror, reflections on mortality – which would it be? My co-conspirators each trying on the vow of silence, sworn to sharing their experience the next morning. One mused about second-hand coffins, like pre-washed jeans, rendered supple and full of life by our youth, another confessing to wet dreams and happy thoughts he hoped would go with the defunct into the netherworld, a third taking solace in the comfortable abode, finally cured of his thirst for death, just another sleep, nothing more. And me. Me who had initiated the dare, spending the night awake, feeling the tenderness in the handiwork of the final resting place. We could choose to keep the lid open or closed and, but one, we all chose to close it, the better to experience a simulacrum of death after testing that indeed we could raise the lid from inside. My father ran the local funeral home and had just gotten an order of coffins in, for the war was raging and business was brisk. We were fourteen and fifteen, could not pass, could not enlist. Between us, we had few facial hair, nothing in the way of a five o’clock shadow, no dirt on our upper lips, just dreams of glory and of stars in girls’ eyes.

What a sight it would have been, had my father chanced upon us before dawn, soft snores emanating from the wooden boxes, dreams softening the air, unruly mops as the lids slowly lifted and we emerged from the chrysalis, a mocking smile on our lips, eyes full of mischief. It beat smoking and drinking this daring feat, Hades chatting up Morpheus. The room needed airing, the coffin pillows fluffing, before we slinked out, with nervous laughs and guilty stares. We swore never to tell. If I am telling now, it’s that the others are gone and that our foolishness was child’s play, with no disrespect intended. It merely cemented our friendship, solidified our beings. We were kids before the dare, but not quite the same after we emerged from it. Peter and I were the most affected. We had been troubled going in and the deed sealed the deal. If my father suspected anything, he didn’t let on. After that night, I treated the coffins with more respect, understanding them from the inside, so to speak. I felt reverence for the artisans who chose to create their best pieces for a short moment of glory, like wedding cakes to be marvelled at and consumed. It is in the nature of art that beauty outlasts its creation and lives on in the imagination.

During my short stay in the velvety comfort of the coffin, I’d had the company of a fly. I suppose flies are to be expected around corpses, but we were young and vital. I suspect my pungent smell resulted from an excess of young sap in the blood as I didn’t want to entertain the possibility of fear. Nevertheless, I was the only one who was so accompanied, and I felt it was my luck. Far from being incommoded by the insect, I was glad for the company. While the others snored, I felt the fly walking about me and saw it rubbing its legs as a soldier might have done to try and erase invisible bloodstains on his hands. Thus I spent the night, straining to hear the buzz, rejoicing and cursing the insect in one breath. I was hoping and dreading sleep and the buzzing fly was my perfect alibi. Velvet has remained my favourite covering, though it is a rare choice, people choosing virginial silk over the heavy velvet with its somber associations.

I took on my father’s business, flies and all. Truth be told, in the basement where we prepared the bodies, it wasn’t as cool as we would have liked so we had to work quickly. When working evenings on the makeup and such, we would open the back door to get a bit of a breeze. I collected in a jar the flies who ventured in and released them back in nature at closing time. I disliked killing any creature. When the time came, we had a nice funeral for my father. He had made no prior arrangements, a poorly shod shoemaker, so I set his body down in black velvet. His pale face was a nice contrast on the dark pillow and heightened his fine features. I dressed him with his white tuxedo. He had lost weight in his last months, and it fit him nicely. With the white tuxedo and sideburns, on black velvet, he could almost pass for his idol. I hoped the softness of the fabric gave him some pleasure. It was the coffin in which the fly and I had spent that night, years ago. Nobody had claimed it. It was unloved except secretly by me and my father who I am sure would have approved of my choice. He was thrifty and had lost money in that deal. I knew he had a soft spot for the coffin, having held on to it over the years. As for me, I had kept the brass fixtures polished and daily dusted its fine body. It was as familiar as an old steed and my hope was that it would bring my father safely to the other side, the love and care I had lavished on it permeating the wood and its occupant. Paying homage to my father one last time, I was alone with him to say my goodbyes. I gently unscrewed the top of the jar and laid it by his side. The gentle buzz would keep him company on his long journey.

Broken Heart

I spent the first two years trying to forget and the following ones trying to remember. “Murderer,” she growled. “Murderess,” I corrected mentally. That attitude had gotten me nowhere. The cell was dingy, and it didn’t help that I had to share it with Belle. I had asked for a pail and water to at least wash my half, but the guard had laughed it off, saying something to the effect that dirt attracted dirt. I learned quickly not to retaliate in words or otherwise, and that bureaucracy is heavier than the weight of years.

My life derailed on that fateful night, but to be sure it had veered off course well before. The first hint that I was off track came when I told him “we” were pregnant, and he suggested we go out and celebrate. By that he meant get drunk and I didn’t think that was a great idea. He growled and complained when I explained it would harm the baby. The random beatings started soon after. Even then, I held out hope. I guess I started complaining to a higher authority and when the prayers didn’t work, I became the instrument of justice. Well, poison did.

It turns out in the end I lost the baby, him, and myself. Poison leaves a trace and I was deemed an unfit mother after I was accused of the crime. Most of that time is a blur, coming back to me in snatches with Dr Melissa’s help. I think Melissa is a lovely name, unlike the sordid ones around me. Melissa had me read regress back to my childhood. I was born in a well-off family. I have since revised my assessment that it was a loving one. Apart from basic physical needs, I was not offered much. Had it not been for Coco, I wouldn’t have turned out human.

A dog’s love will surpass your own tenfold. We had each other and she lived as old as she could. It was clear she did not want to leave me, even when she became blind and lame. But Mother had a heart of stone, and she dispatched her when I was away at College. The best part of me shut down that day, and for years it cried by itself, hidden away in a cave/cava; the left ventricle by all accounts. It’s a small room, that chamber. The perfect place to hide and never be found. I developed an irregular heartbeat around that time and was diagnosed with a faulty heart valve. It was not life-threatening in the short term, said my appointed cardiologist, but in time we would have to remedy the situation. A faulty bomb was ticking away inside me.

Surgery is what he had in mind. For the following years, I had to follow a strict regimen and be the subject of scrutiny. I allowed it, since I did not feel I quite inhabited that body anyways. When I met Jed, I was mesmerized. He was tall and strong, with a dove’s tattoo on his neck. He believed in world peace but had trouble controlling his anger. He was tender towards me, and easily jealous. Jed and I became lovers quickly. My body wanted his, and I obviously had already taken leave of my mind by then, so I didn’t object. The baby materialized quickly, as though she had been waiting for an excuse to come to me. I hoped it was a girl and secretly called her Colette, Coco for short.

I was eight months in on the day the Earth flipped. I had just come back from bringing our car to the garage. It had died on me, all lights flashing on the dashboard, a silent cry for help. A tow truck had delivered us to our mechanic who took pity on me and drove me home at the end of his shift, grocery bags and all. I hadn’t yet settled in to make supper when Jed arrived, famished, and started yelling the usual. Instead of cowering, I stood up to him for the baby’s sake. I did not want her to learn bad habits. I knew she was taking it all in and I wanted to be strong for her. I had made up my mind that I couldn’t stay with Jed, but what to do next was beyond ne. My family, never supportive to start with, had practically disowned me when they met Jed. I could see their point, in a way.

We lived in a shack. There is no other way to describe the kitchen with a dirt floor, a typical summer kitchen that was used year-round. Empty beer bottle cases were stacked on one wall. We used them as a makeshift counter. Another stack had the full bottles. The house was tiny; we slept on a mattress on the floor of a mezzanine – hot in all seasons. We had an outhouse. I was stubborn and called it home. There was another room downstairs, for resting. It had chairs and a table, and an ax and wood for the stove. Jed had carved a few things for the baby. He got lost in himself when carving and the toys were beautiful. I could see his tender heart through the dove and the car, and the little animals he fashioned out of wood scraps. We had mice. It was easy to understand how they came in but why they stayed baffled me. There was close to no food in the house, but of course what they considered useful was different. They ran on the rafters and I found droppings on the bed. I had visions of the baby getting eaten alive in its crib. Mice like soft clothes or down comforters. We had heavy woolen blankets and I am sure those would do just fine.

I had bought rat poison. I wanted to make sure we got rid of the infestation before the baby came. I had sprinkled some in the corners, all the while apologizing under my breath. I did not wish them harm, but I saw no other way to protect my baby. It was a lengthy affair, my movements slow, my feet heavy, one hand on my tummy, the other distributing poison. I had poured it in the salt shaker, to sprinkle it evenly. Under Jed’s screams, I hurried supper. He had gone outside to chop some wood, to calm himself down. I had made the usual, soup, and when came time to salt it, my hand paused by the shaker. That’s when the thought came to my mind. I didn’t use the rat poison – it doesn’t work on humans. It’s made to be bitter and elicit vomiting. No, a girlfriend had given me herbs to induce a miscarriage and, with a knowing look, told me the dosage and the likely consequences. She had told me to be careful of overdosing, explaining the dire consequences. I had been numb but taken in the information and the herbs, letting them dry alongside the rosemary and thyme. I ground them in a fine powder and added it to his bowl, along with honey.

It was a Friday, and he always had a few drinks. I set a bottle on his side and called him in. We ate in silence. He did not comment on the soup but drank a few more bottles. He slept poorly. I felt him toss and turn. Of course, by that time, with my big tummy, I hardly slept at all. He told me he had cramps, and I feigned concern. He was sweating profusely, and I pressed a cold compress on his brow. He was feverish. I did not want him throwing up and cleansing himself. I hushed him and made crooning noises. He fell into a heavy sleep, helped by the alcohol he had ingested. Morning had come. I cautiously went down the ladder, started the fire and put the kettle on. He stirred. I brought him more soup with the special herb mixed in. He drank it all. His body tried to reject it. He vomited but choked on his vomit which is ultimately what killed him. I went out in the snow to fetch a doctor. It was a long trek and the doctor concluded he died while I was out getting help.

I went into labour. His sister made the funeral arrangements. They were simple, in keeping with our means. I attended, with my newborn girl, dazed all the while, getting condolences and congratulations all in one breath. It would have made me crazy if I had been sane.

 

 

Bird

I am with my new friend Karen from school. She hung out with the not very popular girls. If I’d taken a minute to think about it, and shamefully, furtively, I did, I knew that the class divide ran along money lines. We lived in a suburb and the self-assured ones were rich. I was never quite sure where my family stood, where I stood, because we did not discuss money at home. To make matters worse, our home stood in a no-man’s land of a few houses, neither here nor there, but close to the bus stop where everyone congregated. Because of that uncertainty, I hung out with everybody. The popular ones were nice and friendly, but their easy familiarity made me cringe. The bulk of us were regular friendly. We had our gripes and our loud laughs. We did not try to be proper. The third group was flotsam, held together by chance and currents. They seemed rather sad, rather shy, a little bit slow and dull. They wore hand-me-downs from a long line of siblings. One girl always tried to look perky. She wore new clothes from a discount store, and accessorized but was not a full member of the middle group. I don’t remember the boys. They were just an unkempt, dusty, noisy mass with its own divisions. In class, we worked together, the bright and slow, the boys and girls, in teams of three that varied by subject. The teacher broke down our carefully constructed order to create teams of equal strengths. Nobody objected. We didn’t know we were allowed. We tested the waters, made do with the new friendships, the boys not that bad, the outcasts a good lot too.

I head out to Karen’s after class one day, to do an assignment there. She lives on a side street on which I’ve never set foot before, in a three-storey apartment building I didn’t know existed. The apartment has its own smell, as dwellings do, but my nose does not recognize what makes it different from ours. I am ushered in the family room and introduced to the adult there, an aunt, surely not the mother, as mothers are active and working. I don’t have a stay-at-home mom, but I do know that stay-at-home moms offer us kids freshly-baked cookies or healthy carrot sticks. I look around the tight space, cluttered ceiling-high with porcelain figures in coy positions. They are funny-looking, none of those high society ladies with pretty dresses. No, these are unfamiliar models, dwarf-like in their desire not to take up too much room. I stare at them curiously, wrack my brains to find something pleasant to say, come up with a lame “I love their colours,” which seems to do the trick. They’re all shiny, clearly loved, and I respect their status in the family. Knick knacks are not welcome in my home. “They gather dust,” says my mother dismissively. That’s not true, of course, only if you don’t love them.

On top of the massive television, an older model encased in wood, sits a bird cage and a bird called Tiki. Before she married, Karen’s mom was a waitress at a snazzy downtown bar called the Kon Tiki. “We served the best Mai Tai in town,” she says. I nod, suitably impressed, though I have never seen a live Mai Tai. “It’s an exotic drink, with an umbrella stick.” I smile and nod, feeling like a fool. “That’s where I met her father.” Her voice trails off. I’m not sure if the story is finished. I turn back to Tiki. We watch him jump from perch to perch, in a dizzying dance. Maybe I am making him nervous, my voice too loud, my smell offensive, my thoughts foreign. Wrong, wrong, wrong. I certainly feel I don’t belong, looking in from outside, navigating an unfamiliar terrain mined with unknowns. I don’t know how to be myself, so I resort to being polite which also feels wrong but safe. I look at Karen, who beams back at me. “Isn’t he funny, jumping like that?” she asks. “Does he do that often?” “Only when Tiger wants to play with him.” Tiger is a tabby. He’s lying on a frilly pillow, tail twitching, eyes unblinking. His ears perk up when he hears his name and he lets out a meow. I think the bird is sensing my unease as I watch it trapped in its cage. It’s a real cage, with bars, a small mirror, toys, a feeder with hulls swimming on the surface. The water may not have been changed recently, as debris mar the surface. Tiki is molting but I don’t know that. I see feathers littering the bottom of the cage, and half feathers poking through the bird’s plumage. Tiki seems to be pecking his wings as though he’s mad, like those girls who cut themselves. Or perhaps there used to be two birds and only feathers remain. I shudder at the thought.

I look for their bookshelf so we can swap stories but I see none and I suddenly suspect there is something deeply wrong with this place.

On my walk back, I can’t get the bird out of my mind. My friend laughed when I suggested we open the door. “Tiki doesn’t want to leave its cage, not with Tiger around. When we clean the cage, he grips our finger and never lets go. Poor Tiki bird! His wings are clipped so he won’t fly away.” I dream of Tiki, free, singing from joy, with other birds for company, doing what birds do. Instead, his best friend is his reflection in a mirror, his universe his toys inside, the cat outside. There is a rock in my stomach, and it weighs heavily on me.

Knitting Wars

JoJo wore knitted socks, and scarves and sweaters and hats. She made them standing up, sitting down, in the subway and in front of the television. Knitting was her passion and her life. When she had first taken up the craft, JoJo had given away her pieces, but they were not received with the gratitude they commanded so she stopped sharing them and soon her tiny apartment filled with her creations. She expanded her horizons to include progressively more complex patterns and became adept at modifying them to suit her fancy. In her mind’s eye, JoJo could spot any flaw as she scanned the instructions and computed the rows. She would rearrange colours and add a bit of texture here and there to create her own versions.

She embraced the Internet, and started contributing her own patterns, establishing a following of like-minded knitters. They competed for complexity and beauty. Those were exciting times in the knitting community. She met Darlene online, and their friendship bloomed. They shared their most cherished patterns and memories of successes and failures. Darlene was her one true friend until that fateful day. At first, JoJo thought she was mistaken, but when confronted Darlene admitted to the deed. She had been in a slump, unable to create anything new, and had resorted to reusing one of JoJo’s early patterns, altering instructions slightly and adding a few twists to make it hers. She was unapologetic which made matters worse.

JoJo was unravelled. She had thought they were so tightly knit that they could withstand anything. She tried to put the incident behind her, so precious was their friendship to her, but the hurt kept surfacing, like a mistake that glares at you in the first row, so much so that you have to start over. JoJo’s trust had been breached. She decided to test the waters again, and excitedly shared with Darlene a new pattern she had created for Halloween. It was intricate and challenging, a whimsical cat hat made with angora wool, complete with pointy ears and a long tail topped with a pompom. She could feel Darlene’s lust at the design. Sure enough, it pushed her over the edge again. Darlene changed a few stitches, added paws that trailed on the cheeks and a ball of yarn that attached under the chin. War was declared. For every design came a counter-design, a pathetic effort at creativity.  Darlene was standing on JoJo’s shoulder, letter JoJo do all the heavy lifting and sharing the glory. JoJo’s patterns reeked of frustration; Darlene’s stank of complacency. The result was an eccentric mix that made their followers go wild.

A newcomer to the knitting community had launched a campaign to cloth elephants that were suffering from the cold in India. Soon, all eyes were set on India. JoJo saw the elephants as giant billboards for her promotion. She poured over pictures of lavishly dressed elephants in the maharaja’s times and outdid them in colourful yarns. Hers were the prettiest, with an eye for using comfy wool against the cold. The art was ephemeral, as elephants scratched themselves against trees, leaving soft fluff behind. The birds loved the wool and used the long strands to build comfy nests for their brood. All over India, tattered elephant sweaters littered the landscapes and for years after the cold spell, knitted flowers were seen adorning nests, with JoJo’s signature cross-stitches. Those were seen as lucky omens. JoJo eggs became all the rage, said to bring riches to the ones who ate them. Unfortunately, she was never able to put her hands on one and had to settle with glory in faraway lands.

The Dentist

The dentist waits for me with her instruments of torture. I try to look indifferent, glancing at her credentials on the wall. Her assistant ushers me in. I try to understand the mind of someone whose job it is to hurt people. As a child, how wonder if she tore wings off butterflies or legs off a spider. Perhaps her parents detected a streak of sadism in her and directed her into dentistry. I hear the whirring of the instruments and wonder what possessed me to come to this place of hurt.

I remember the first time. The adults conspired to make it a good experience. They had decided that whatever the outcome, no painful work would be done on my teeth. The idea was to familiarize myself with the office and see it as a benign location, or at least neutral. When we arrived, a little boy my age was trembling from fear. He suddenly dissolved into tears, saying between sobs “Don’t make me!” I quickly lost my composure, and started crying, filled with dread. A white coat took the boy away. I heard screaming, a real tantrum as the boy struggled against his tormentors.

I was there with my older brother, a quiet, unassuming boy with a vicious side. I knew I wasn’t getting any sympathy from him. The assistant came “Jacoby?” He looked at me. “There are two of us. This is my sister’s first time.” The assistant smiled, all teeth out. “Who wants to go first?” John nudged me. I looked up in fright at his placid eyes. He took pity on me. “Will you stay here quietly with a book if I go first? I won’t be too long.” I nodded furiously.  He got up as though to grab a cookie from the cookie jar, all smooth and self-assured. Cookies – instant cavities. I could feel my mouth watering. Will the thought of cookies bring on a cavity? I focused instead on proper brushing techniques. I was afraid there would be some kind of pop quizz.

The boy came back out, holding a lollipop. I made eye contact, he stuck out his tongue, eyes still red from the crying, snot on his sleeve. He seemed oddly content. I suppose they gave him electroshocks to erase his memory. I had a fine brain and did not want it ruined. I debated whether I should run away. If I went home, it was only a matter of time before they dragged me back, maybe in a straitjacket so I could not resist. I was swinging my skinny legs, wondering if I should pick up a magazine or something. There were children’s books, but I was no longer a baby.

My brother came out, a hand on his cheek, his eyes unfocused and dull. His bravado had left him. He collapsed on the chair beside me and said nothing. The knot in my stomach was too tight to unravel. Regret flooded me. I should have run while there was still time. The assistant was waiting for me, all fangs out in what passed for a smile. I put myself in God’s hands, and valiantly headed in her direction, ignoring her outstretched hand. I would not befriend the enemy, nor succumb to bribery. I would not crack under torture, nor divulge any names.

The dentist appeared. She was a petite woman with soft brown hair and a mask she had lowered to her throat, no doubt hiding some terrible deformity. The chair was way too big for me, all leather with a swiveling lamp mounted on it. I did not see any restraining belt though I was on the lookout for it. I took in the environment, sterile and threatening. They both wore tight-fitting gloves, the ones that leave no fingerprints. There was a spot of blood on the sink. My eyes could not let go of the blood. I am pretty sure I blanched. The assistant/bodyguard wiped down the sink and made the stain disappear. Leave no trace. I hardened my resolve.

The dentist told me her name was Sandy and asked for mine. I gave her a fake name, followed by fictitious rank and location. She looked at her chart and said, tentatively, “Isobel?” I nodded yes, defeated. Her assistant put something around my neck that held a paper towel under my chin. There were pictures on the wall of ugly mouths and beautiful mouths, diseased gums and healthy gums, the stuff of nightmares. She asked me if I brushed my teeth, clearly a trick question. The bodyguard loomed behind, towering over us both. I refused to answer. The dentist said she wanted to have a look at my teeth. “Open wide,” she said. I didn’t. She opened her mouth wide to show me, like I was some idiot. It was a neat trick. Monkey see, monkey do. Still, I resisted. The assistant opened wide. I was the only one in the room with her mouth closed. They still had their mouths open, gaping holes, moist and smelling of peppermint. I peered inside with interest at those large teeth. Mine were small and inoffensive. I tentatively loosened my jaw and opened my mouth. She showed me a shiny instrument with a mirror at the end and slowly introduced it in my mouth. At some point when I was not paying attention, they had both put their masks back on. The bodyguard had bushy eyebrows, I could pick her out in a lineup, if need be. My heart was beating hard. I started squirming.

Two hands clasped my shoulders. The bodyguard had moved behind the chair. The dentist was making reassuring noises while the oversized monster was holding me down. She had the strength of four gorillas and smelled the same. The dentist had taken out her instrument and my mouth closed on itself again. My teeth were safe. We were in this together. The dentist had a tray with a bunch of shiny instruments. She picked up a hook. “I will poke at your teeth to see if they are sound. I will just click them and see if they are solid. Now, open wide.” I nodded my understanding, but my jaw wouldn’t loosened. She tugged on her mask and opened her mouth. I complied.

It didn’t hurt. She gently tapped my pearly teeth, complimenting me on my great hygiene. The gorilla’s grip had loosened, and she now moved about the room, preparing other instruments, her back to me. The dentist said, “We’re almost done. Corine will brush your teeth with a rotary toothbrush. Which flavour do you want, lemon, strawberry or mint?” “Strawberry please,” I whispered. The ordeal was almost over. I had started relaxing when the whirring sound started. “Corine” was approaching with a crazed glint in her eyes. A muffled voice came from under the mask, “Open up!” I knew an order when I got one. I opened my mouth and the whirring toothbrush tickled my teeth. She went up and down and around. Saliva burst forth to taste the strawberry paste. She handed me a paper cup filled with cool water. “Rinse and spit.” I did but missed the mark. The chair was too wide, and some of the spit dribbled down the side, in a reddish liquid stain.

The gorilla took off my paper towel. It was peppered with pink toothpaste splatter. Underneath, my t-shirt was pristine. My tongue kept going over my teeth. They were smooth and polished, pleasant to the touch. Corine had me choose a toothbrush (green) and brought me back to the waiting area where John waited. He was reading a magazine distractedly. He paid and took my hand. When we were out, he asked, “How did it go?” “I bit her.” He looked at me with admiration. “Did you draw blood?” “Yep,” I said in no uncertain terms. His face was still swollen on one side, the result of a beating by the dentist no doubt. He put his hand in his pocket, looked at the coins. “Let’s go for ice cream.” We ate the cool sweetness in the silence of those who have been through hell and survived.

Paper

The ceremony was held without her body, to put her soul to rest. By the time he’d heard the news, she’d been dead and buried overseas. He had dreamt of her, pale and evanescent, which told him her ghost was unmoored. He wanted to set things right. He didn’t like the feel of paper on his lips. Having written the name of his late mother on a piece of paper, he wasn’t ready yet to see it go up in smoke. He let his lips linger longer than appropriate, a long exhale, like her last breath. He stifled sobs but the tears were streaming freely down his face, a flood of conflicting emotions. Her death had been sudden, unexpected. He had trouble accepting the reality of it. He lay the piece of paper in a gold bowl which the monk lit up amidst chants.

It was hot, where he was. Everybody moved slowly under the white sun, sleeping, no, collapsing, when it was at its apex. Even the bugs were drowsy, looking for shade. He thought the sand would turn to glass, a brittle layer burning the soles of his feet. He felt feverish, as though he had absorbed the heat and it was scorching his insides. He wondered if he was suffering a bout of malaria or grief. He could not tell.  Neither would go away. After the ceremony, he had another dream, of his mother still, this time floating on a boat down a river. He had the feeling of an underground river, in darkness and damp. She was unmoving, lying still on her back, the barge loaded with gifts. He woke up to see a servant with a concerned look on her face. She had put a wet, cool washcloth on his brow. When he opened crazed eyes, she held a cup of weak tea to his lips. He drank greedily and went back to his dream.

He was in a barge himself, alongside hers now. They had picked up speed, the current was trying to tear them apart. He had tied both barges together, but the knots kept coming undone and he was desperately trying to stay with his mother. He grabbed on to her barge and tried to climb into it, but fear overtook him. The river was boiling now, bubbling and stinky. The barge was hot to the touch. He let go and his mother’s barge sped ahead caught in a whirlwind that sucked her down and away from his sight. He woke up, heart pounding, sure that she was dead now, with a deep hollow in the pit of his stomach.

The worst of the heat had abated. He was drenched in sweat, perhaps feverish. He walked to the terrace and heard the muezzin’s call to prayer. So many ways to appease the gods. He poured himself a whisky. The drone of the prayer settled his nerves.

Like a Prayer Flag

There was good money to be made in the coal mine. It was a means to an end as he had never intended to spend his life underground. His passion and his dream were to climb mountains. The dream of whiteness sustained him in the dark and the filth. Every time his pickaxe hit the wall, he saw ice and practiced putting his weight on it. The cold was good practice, the headlamp was good practice. Any unforeseen event made him sharpen his reflexes and think back on mistakes he could have avoided.

The day that part of the mine collapsed, he was trapped with his co-workers. As the others were panicking and getting desperate, he found ways to calm them. What would you do in an avalanche? Signal your presence. He got the slimmest of them to bring a red kerchief wrapped around a message to the farthest reaches of the fault. It was to be their message in a bottle, containing their names and the location where they had been working. The slim man was brave – he wedged himself amongst the unstable rocks, extending his arm as far as he could, all the while fearing it would get crushed. Two men were holding his legs, ready to pull him out quickly if he said so. They did not have to. A lamp threw enough light to show the bit of red that held their hope, like a beating heart in the rubble.

He advised them to catch some sleep and they got organized. They set up rotations of two men who kept watch. The men were exhausted despite their dire circumstances. They slept soundly. Two men stayed awake in the dark. They were tough men used to tough lives. He had advised them to take their minds off the slide and pay attention to minute sounds. He took the second watch with Colin, a man who was not well liked. They did not need to chat – indeed it was better if they refrained to conserve oxygen.

Part of his mind was straining to hear sounds of a rescue team, but the best part of him was busy planning his climbing expedition. He imagined his dream team, based on the best qualities his fellow miners exhibited. He found it exhilarating to have the chance to sample flaws in character in a matter of life and death. He felt fortunate at having gotten trapped to have material to work with. He was too young not to be optimistic. He fully believed the cavalry was coming.

Thus he slept soundly after his turn was up. He slept so soundly that even the yells of the others calling out to the rescue team did not wake him. The rescuers were progressing slowly. They had spotted the red flag, retrieved it, told the anxious people on top the names of the survivors in that cell. They managed to pump fresh oxygen, water and hope. The men still used their lamps sparingly.

However, the men were not ones to rejoice before they had been pulled back up and were safely into a beloved’s arms. Yet hope filled their hearts, and their cramped quarters now felt cozy. He had at last woken up and was observing everything closely. He was interested in people’s reactions. Had he read them properly? Were the chosen ones made of the right cloth?

At last, they were brought up. He put himself last in line. He wanted to experience it all. He saw the accident in slow motion – the frayed rope giving way, the cabin falling. Of course, he was daydreaming this. They were all safe and sound, heroes every one of them. He noticed after the ordeal that Colin was now accepted and integrated. He had proven his worth. They had lived through fear and bonded.

To him, the event marked a turning point. Shortly after, he settled his accounts and headed for the mountains. He wanted to feel the sun on his skin, the cold in his bones, the camaraderie of the rope.

Every climb taught him something. He was a methodical student and progressed quickly. He felt little fear, which made him a liability in his companions’ eyes. Yet he was cautious and neither caused nor suffered any serious accident. Slowly, he was accepted and invited to join more experienced climbers. He was as strong as an ox and unbeatable with a pickaxe. He noticed everything and took detailed notes which he read and reread. A few years after the mine incident, he heard of an explosion there. At the time of the explosion, he had been climbing a very tricky wall with two other mountaineers. He swore after that he had felt the blast in his body, bursts of wind pushing him against the mountain wall. He was breathing hard, feeling the clean air in his lungs, thinking of his old life and its dangers. It felt like light-years away. His spikes gripped the slippery wall as he serenely continued pegging his way, a song in his heart, his dream team clipped to the rope, like those prayer flags in the Himalayas.

To Your Health

I never did belong. When I awoke to the world I realised I was not of it.

Not for me the parties, the crowds, the shared secrets. It’s not that I wasn’t liked; people were just indifferent to me. For the longest time, I actually thought I was invisible to people outside my family. I even played at walking funny or making sudden noises to get a reaction out of people. It only gave me the reputation of being weird and unpredictable. I could find no redemption after that.

One day, I read about the health benefits of having friends and set about doing so. A bookmobile serviced our little town and the surrounding ones. If I had a friend, it was the bookmobile lady who accompanied me in my reading and nudged me along. I confided in her my latest research project and returned home with Dale Carnegie’s aptly named “How to Win Friends and Influence People”. I hid it away like a dirty little secret, not wanting to give my peers a reason to mock me.

There were tips and tricks! “Compliment people you meet by noticing small things about them.” That was harder than you would think. It highlighted several things. I don’t interact much with people and when I do I hardly talk; I don’t pay attention to them. This would explain why they did not notice me. I was doing the same. I became consumed by my new game. I hung out with another loner. We stuck together because there is safety in numbers. We didn’t talk much but it gave us a veneer of normalcy. I started talking to her as practice. One morning, I said “I love that you always match your shoes to your outfit.” She blushed and looked up to see if I was teasing her. The truth is I had noticed she varied her shoes quite a bit. I alternated between two pairs of shoes so I took note. She saw my eager face and sincere smile and mumbled something. I pressed. What was that? It was so out of character that she looked up again. We were going to have a conversation?

She explained that her mom worked in a shoe store and that she got them at a discount. I asked if they were comfortable, what kind of discount, if I could get a pair. We talked all the way to school and it was quite agreeable. I could see the benefit already. On the way home, she asked me about a hair clip I wore. It was a cheap clip, four pink plastic cats, but I was quite fond of it and told her all about my different hair clips in detail. The next day, she proudly showed me a different pair of shoes she wore and confirmed her mom could get me a pair. We agreed to go together after school so I could choose and report back to my mom. My world was turning upside down. I was wearing a golden hair clip with a dark band in the middle, more serious because we were expecting to get our class and individual pictures taken. We all dressed up a bit for the occasion.

We were side-by-side in the class picture and we were both radiant. My parents bought the picture and marvelled at us both. By then, we were officially best friends and I had a new pair of shiny black shoes with a buckle. They were an extravagant choice, but my mom agreed because of the discount and the health benefits of having friends. Our good mood was infectious and other kids gravitated towards us. The invisibility that was ours slowly lifted. It felt like all this time we were little suns surrounded by clouds of our own making. The clouds had dispersed and the scenery was lovely. The book had not explained about the health benefits and to tell the truth I did not read it all. I returned it, having learnt the first trick. I practiced it nonstop ever since. I credit my longevity with it.

The interview was over. “Dale Carnegie, uh?” I was tired by then. This was a long story. The reporter thanked me and prepared to leave. He added, pensively, “You complimented me on my fancy tape recorder when I came in.” “I did, and we established a rapport. You perked up because you felt it was not going to be a run-of-the-mill ‘old broad turns 100 but doesn’t remember how to tie her shoes.” To his credit, he blushed. “I was honoured to have met you. I hope you enjoy my article on you.”

He came back to see me and show me the article. It talked about the beautiful diamond hair clip I was wearing and how I came about it through my smart financial dealings. I had shares in my friend’s family shoe store, which turned into a chain that did quite well for itself. We went our separate ways. I married and moved out of town where I became a librarian. I always kept a copy of Dale Carnegie in stock.

Hands

Bea made her living as a courtroom sketch artist, capturing in minutes the highlights of proceedings. Her renderings were exact but not clinical. She had a knack for seizing the flicker of emotion, highlighting it with a shadow or a hint of colour to the cheeks. She was a consummate portraitist and, as any artist, was always looking for a challenge. She had two sets of notebooks: the official and the personal. She did her work, chronicling each witness and, in effect, describing the proceedings. If a picture is worth a thousand words, she was surely a very quick typist.

Once her official duties were taken care of, she would often choose one person who offered challenges of some sort. She would try and feel that person from the inside. She looked at people in the general seating for inspiration. Some were regulars, others were family or interested parties. In publicized cases, there were more spectators, drawn in by mere curiosity.

One day, she was assigned a case involving an attack on the Muslim community. Bea delighted in seeing a number of veiled women as they were deceptively expressive yet more challenging to depict. She chose a young woman, whose eyes were the only visible feature. Wanting to preserve her anonymity, she chose not to draw her eyes but to focus on the tension in her shoulders, and the way she carried her head which betrayed the intensity of her concentration. Bea could not help but create stories for the people she sketched. Surely, this was a young woman. Her moves were quick, her body supple under her cloak. Bea was able to match the emotions shown by slumped shoulders or head held high to precise statements in a case. The story she invented mirrored the case – the young woman’s sympathies were for the accused, a woman suspected of having murdered her child who was being abused.

Her unwitting model was old enough to recognize when someone was wrongly convicted. She was clearly drawn to the case, not missing a single day. Like most cases, people typically arrived according to a set schedule and sat roughly in the same place. She had become familiar with Miss A., as she called her privately, and came to rely on her presence in order to start her day. She was almost a talisman, or a good luck charm.

She had become so engrossed in her personal drawings that she took to sketching in the official and personal notepads side-by-side, timestamping both as she went along. She learned so much from that study that she applied the technique to her official court sketches and made them even more valued.  Reporters came to her and asked her to extrapolate from her observations either to predict public opinion or the jury’s position. They noticed how accurate her predictions were and started arguing for or against according to her sketches, which made for lively debates in the press.

One day, Bea noticed that someone was drawing her as she sketched. It was someone from the general public. She felt a professional curiosity and went to compare notes at a recess. It turns out that artist was only sketching hands. Her own were a blur of circular moves. The depictions were amateurish and all the more interesting. They were pure instinct and had a definite naivete about them. The artist had no formal training but was intensely curious and an avid learner. His line showed energy fields as he felt and saw them. Bea saw how he was sensing the invisible and adding yet another layer of understanding. They started sitting side-by-side and learning from each other. As his drawings became more precise, hers were pared down to their simplest expression.

Her official work had always relied heavily on the accuracy of the faces, but she could see how distinctive and eloquent hands and hand movements were. She still drew faces accurately but added more details in the hands that told the story. People knew to guard their faces; they were much freer with their hands.

When arthritis attacked her fingers, she did not despair. Instead, she took it as yet another example of storytelling. Her fingers were tired of chronicling bad deeds; they longed for restful topics. She retired from her lucrative work in the court. Indeed, her protégé took over after years of learning by her side. His own style was still naïve, almost cartoonish. In a world where the general public was looking for dumbed-down news, his simpler tales sold well. She was glad to be rid of a job that had started feeling like a chore. When her protégé had last drawn her hands, the lines were square and almost static, the energy imploding.

They met occasionally for lunch where he plunged into detailed descriptions of expressions and caustic descriptions of court happenings. Though she recognized in him the passion she used to have, she now felt strangely detached from that world. When she’d retired, she had felt grief at leaving the life she had known, privately doubting her decision. Paradoxically, an intense freedom had befallen her. She was free from rigid schedules and set forms. A world of new interests opened before her. She became daring in her desires, forceful in accomplishing them. She had nothing to prove and nothing to lose. Because of her arthritis, she was no longer able to quickly sketch. She had to be deliberate and choose how she would use the few hours without pain that she had each day.

She decided on gardening. With the same precision and attention to detail she had always shown, she established a schedule. However, she quickly realized that success depended on her attitude and intention. Her first attempts resulted in crooked vegetables and stunted growth. As her awareness and comfort levels grew, her fingers sensed the seeds’ personalities and energy fields. The interplay of her growing ease and inner peace translated into larger and tastier crops. “Hands,” she thought. All this time they had been hiding in plain sight. When hands covered faces, covered eyes, covered tears, people tried to pry the fingers apart. But all this time, the body was trying to show the hands.

 

High Noon

Chet stopped the pickup truck in the middle of the road. The red one coming along surely was Bernie’s. Bernie idled alongside him. They lowered their windows and shook hands. They were shooting the breeze amicably when a car they didn’t know came along. It sat behind Chet. Neither Chet nor Bernie paid it any mind. The driver of the car turned off his engine and waited. They were amused. They leisurely ended the conversation and left, each pickup going its own way, resuming travel. Looking in their mirror, they saw the car hadn’t moved. Chet turned in the first dirt road he came to and sat there to observe. Bernie was doing a U-turn. He drove back and stopped his truck behind the stranger’s car. The stranger didn’t move. The proper thing to do when two vehicles visited was to wait politely for their drivers to finish their conversation. When one person stopped in the middle of the road? He didn’t know what the rule was. The stranger had been polite and shown no impatience. He hadn’t honked. Was he from those parts? Bernie didn’t recognize the car. It was one of those imported vehicles with sleek lines and tinted windows.

Curiosity had gotten him this far. He turned off the engine and walked over towards the driver’s side. The driver started the engine and inched forward as Bernie was walking towards the car. He called out “Hey, Mister!” but the car kept going, just a little faster than he did on foot. Frustrated, he retreated to his truck, started the engine and proceeded to follow. The car stopped again, unexpectedly, in the middle of the road. Bernie had seen the move coming. He passed the car and stopped in front of it. He got out of the truck, but the car passed him slowly in the empty lane. Chet was looking at the whole dance. At first, he had been laughing heartily but he was growing as frustrated as Bernie. He backed his truck to block both lanes in front. Bernie saw what he did and maneuvered the same way behind. The car was now sandwiched, both its front and rear escape routes blocked. It sat there, forlorn.

Neither Chet nor Bernie wanted to get out of the truck. It was a question of honour now. They had started this game of cat and mouse and were not about to give up. Bernie was already preparing the story he was going to tell the guys around the pool table. He couldn’t wait to see how it was going to end. Chet was the first to move. He saw the police flashing lights from afar. He had lost his license on a DUI charge and should not be on the road. But it wouldn’t be manly to back down. His indecision cost him. It was Constable Conway, who had it in for him. They stared at each other from afar. Conway’s radio was crackling under the hot summer sun. It was midday, when things get resolved. No doubt “piggy” Conway was on his way to lunch. Maybe his stomach would urge him on. Chet moved his truck aside to let the cruiser through. Conway rolled down his window. “Got your license back?” “I’m not driving. Just waiting for my cousin to come back and move the truck. Thought I’d listen to the radio.” Conway narrowed his eyes. He motioned to the car with his chin. “Dunno,” answered Chet. And then, “I hope my cousin’s coming back soon. My stomach’s growling like a dog seen his shadow.”

The fat man opined and rolled his window up. Beads formed on his forehead, a crown of thorns miraculously appearing during the exchange. He wiped his face and turned the air conditioning up a notch then drove over to the car. You could tell he was wary of the tinted windows. Conway spoke to the dispatcher over the radio then extracted himself from the police cruiser. Hands hooked on his belt, badge in evidence, he walked over to the car. The window did not slide down. He rapped on it and tried to peer through it but saw only his own reflection, his mirrored sunglasses repeating his likeness to infinity. Conway shifted his weight from one foot to the next. He cleared his throat and looked at Chet. Chet was watching using the oversized side mirror, non-committal. He avoided eye contact. The constable made a big show of taking down the license plate and proceeded back to his car. The mystery car purred alive and slowly started rolling. Conway hurried to the cruiser and put the flashers on, tailgating the offender. The two pickups followed in a slow procession, large soul-expanding western music blasting out of Chet’s truck. He loved western movies, and his heart was dialed into “High Noon.”

The car with the tinted windows cruised at low speed, the pursuit reminiscent of O.J.’s. They were too intent to realize the absurdity of the situation. At last, they made it to their destination. The lead car stopped in front of the emergency entrance of the hospital. Staff in white erupted from the large doors pushing a wheelchair. The car door opened slowly. An elderly Asian man faltered out. He waved weakly at Conway and was wheeled away. Conway, quick as a whip, followed them inside mumbling “We were escorting him.” The businessman was treated for heatstroke and Conway hailed as a hero. Mr Chen had been expected earlier but presumably got lost, turning at the wrong field, rows of corn mocking him until he got dizzy and lost. He did not know to turn on the air conditioning, his body clad in a black suit did not register the intense heat, did not know the sweet release of perspiration, the coolness of the wind.

 

 

Birthdays

My earliest memory is when I was four. It’s my birthday. I’m fat and happy, wearing a birthday hat. It’s just me and ma and a cake with candles. I see the scene as on a photograph, me clapping my hands, ma carrying the cake with the four lighted candles. But then, everything slows down. Ma’s smile freezes and a shadow clouds her brow. Her eyes become glass, like the dolls in my room. I know instantly that daddy is here. It’s just a memory but I feel I can smell the sweat and booze coming off his unwashed body before I even see him. He takes in the scene. He’s wearing rumpled pants and a stained undershirt (why stained? Mother was always meticulous with our clothes). His hair is tousled, his eyes unsteady.

A cigarette is dangling from his lips. It’s not lit. He looks dizzy. He’s holding on to the walls and walking tentatively. You can tell he’s trying to make sense of what he’s seeing. He seems to feel he’s walked into something unusual, foreign. Ma is still holding the cake. The song has died on her lips, the candles are melting. Pa approaches her with forced bonhomie, puts one hand around her waist to steady himself as he plunges his head toward the cake. I let out a protest. He lights his dead cigarette to one of the candles and inhales. The tip glows red, ma stiffens. He lets out the smoke over the cake. The flames flicker and dim, obscured by the smoke. I still hold out hope.

My second memory involves my brother. It’s his birthday but there is no cake. Ma, him and me are walking quickly outside in the rain. Me and Peter are holding onto a suitcase. Peter’s is stuffed with crayons and his teddy bear. I have brought sensible things. A change of clothes and my books. They are cheap suitcases, made out of vinyl. Mine is a dirty yellow, medium size. Peter’s is kid size and small. He is sniffling, unhappy. We are cold and wet and not protected from the rain. A car stops. Ma looks and ushers us in. It’s Mr. Smith, the neighbour, with tight lips. He says, “Where to?” and she says “The train station.” No other words are exchanged. We are out of the rain and relax minimally.

At the train station, ma starts opening her purse. Mr. Smith puts a hand over hers and she looks at him fearfully. His other hand is in his pocket. I read shame in his eyes but no malice. He hands her a few dollars. “That’s all I have. Go!” He waves off our thanks. The rain has stopped. It’s just a drizzle. Ma looks at the time and whips us both to the washroom where she proceeds to dry us with paper. She combs Peter’s hair and smiles at me. It’s a genuine smile. We walk out, flanking ma, as she strides confidently to the counter. “One adult, two children. To Madison.” It feels like we’re going to the movies and she just bought tickets. Peter is looking around at the people. He’s fascinated by a baby in a stroller. He points and says “Baby,” and looks up at ma who is busy, then at me. I smile and he’s happy. He’s an “easy baby”, as opposed to me who was a “contrary baby.”

We have a little time to kill. That’s what ma says. “To kill.” I tell her, in hushed tones “Mr. Smith’s money? And mimic blowing out candles. She squeezes my hand. There is a diner at the station, and she walks over with us in tow. “Miss? Our train is at 1:00. Will we have time to grab something to eat? It’s his birthday. We’re off for an adventure!” The waitress is pretty, with big blond curls. She has a big smile, big enough for the three of us. She asks how old the young one is today and takes our order. Peter is babbling happily and shrieks in delight when the waitress brings a slice of chocolate cake with three lit candles. Patrons join in to sing happy birthday. I say Peter loudly to fill in the blank at “… dear Peter” and he blows them out in one big breath, with our help. Everybody claps. We’re indeed off to a great adventure.

The story goes that ma did not want my father to find us, so she did not dare go to her parents or sister. We showed up at a stranger’s doorstep and she took us in. She wasn’t really a stranger. She was Maggie, and she and ma “went a long way back.” She did not know we were coming but she acts as though she’s thrilled to see us. Ma volunteers that it’s Peter’s birthday and that we were hoping to spend the birthday month with her. She answers, “Too bad you chose a short month!” and I know everything will be fine. She introduces me next “This is my eldest, my pride and joy, Mary Beth.” I curtsy shily. She curtsies back. “Well, Mary Beth, will you help me get the room ready for you? Charlene, be a darling and put the kettle to boil? Peter? I see you’ve found the cat. Be good now.” And off we go in a whirlwind of activity. Pretty soon, it feels like home. The three of us will take her bedroom (“Oh yes, you will!”) so she moves a trunk with her clothes into a tiny room next to the kitchen. We unfold a bed (tada!) and I am suddenly envious of her. She will have her privacy. I am seven now, so I know to keep quiet and do as I am told.

Maggie reads me like an open book. “I work during the day. You are allowed to come here and close the door if you want a bit of time to yourself.” I hug her, which I never, ever do. She is thin and does not smell like ma. She has an earthy smell, that I can’t place. She caresses my hair and says “Blond like me. Do you like curls?” I am overcome with shyness again and nod yes. Ma has set up the table, with two cups and two glasses. Steam is coming out of the teapot. Maggie says, “I have tapioca pudding I made just last night. How is that with a glass of milk, kids?” “Thank you, ma’am,” we answer. Peter is walking towards the table, grinning and holding the cat so that his paws are brushing the ground. Tommy has a white chest and white paws on a striped body. He looks like a tiger. “Tommy’s not allowed at the table. I’ll pour a little milk for him in his bowl.” And she does.

Ma’s birthday is the next memory. Until we moved in with Maggie, I never knew Ma had a birthday. We’ve moved out now, as agreed after the birthday month was over, but we visit Maggie all the time. We are renting rooms in widow Carmichael’s big house. Maggie throws a garden party for ma. It’s August, of course, because that’s when she was born a long time ago. There are a few men friends, but they’re nothing like pa. I help out with the refreshments and Peter endears himself to everybody. I don’t miss pa. Peter Robinson chats me up. He asks an awful lot of questions about ma and then goes to talk to her and asks an awful lot of questions about Peter and me. I like him a lot and ma does too. I help Maggie light so many candles that it looks like the cake is on fire. We walk out with it. I am holding the cake and Maggie has her hands on my shoulders. Ma is smiling and Mr Peter is by her side.

The final birthday memory is after my parent’s divorce. Little Peter turned seven. He has been entrusted with the camera. Ma, Big Peter and me are surrounded by a bunch of Peter’s classmates. He himself is not in the picture. He wants all of us to pretend we are blowing out the candles. He says that way nobody knows who we are celebrating. He did not want to be photographed.

No cookies

“My name is Iris. I was named after this ancient and beautiful Greek goddess representing a rainbow. Like all rainbows, I’m pretty sure I’m gay, though it’s a bit early to tell, says my mother. I am ten.” Or I could say “My name is Iris. I live inside your eye. I can see all you see. I am part goddess and all-powerful.” Or, I could say, “My name is Iris. Like the blue flower of the same name, I bring a message of hope.”

– Mom, which one do you like best?

– What is this for?

– The girl guides.

– Go with the last one.

– It’s kind of lame.

– Which one would you choose?

– The first one.

– Did I ever say it was too early to tell if you were gay?

– Come on, mom, play with me.

– I still vote for the last one. You’re going to creep them out with number 2 and freak them out with number 1.

– But will they remember number 3?

– Sweetie, there is no way anybody can forget you.

Hmm, did I mention I am blind? I usually stand out, even if I wanted to blend in. So, anyway, here we are at my first day of girl guides in this new town. I am wearing my uniform and wielding my cane, feeling confident. Mom drove me and reads in a corner, ready to assist if need be. It’s mostly for the comfort of the lady in charge. You have to take care of the sighted. They tend to be afraid of us blind people.

– Girls, we have a new recruit. Her name is Iris like the Greek goddess of the mythology represented by a rainbow. Iris is also the name of the blue flower we studied this summer. Iris, would you like to tell us a little bit about yourself?

Uh oh, she took out #1 and #3. I am forced to go with #2. I take a deep breath, aiming for a creepy voice. “My name is Iris. I am 11. I was born blind and I’m okay with it. I may need a little help at the start, but I adapt pretty well. Could each of you introduce yourself so I can remember your voice? Maybe tell me a little bit about yourself? I am new at girl guides, but I am sure I will like it.” Lame, lame, lame. All my courage left me. Still, I am standing tall and waiting. I feel a little hand settle into mine.

– I am Mindy, says a small voice. I am nine and I’ve never had a blind friend. Welcome to our troupe.

– I am Carol, I’m 11 like you. I’m new in town and hope to make friends. This is my third time with this troupe. They’re okay.

Shouts of protests. “We’re awesome!” I think I’m going to fit in just swell. My smile broadens as I relax.

– I am Jaya. I am named after the Hindu goddess for Victory. Mindy is my sister.

I nod, impressed. These girls rock.

– I am Jackie! I am Robin! Welcome! Welcome!
They are swarming me, in a friendly way. I can feel their smiles and enthusiasm.

– Can you tell us how you use your cane? What is it like to be blind?

They weren’t told what not to ask!

The troupe leader steps in. “Girls! Give her a bit of room!”

They hush, and retreat, except for Mindy, still holding my hand. Here goes with my spiel.

“First, if you see someone with a white cane and cool shades, it’s okay to come to them and introduce yourself. Don’t touch them (I squeeze Mindy’s hand) if you don’t want to startle them. Most blind people see shadows at best. Our eyes are hypersensitive to light. That’s why we wear sunglasses. You may want to help. If that is the case, ask the person if you may help them in some way. “Mindy, you want to try?”

She lets go of my hand and walks a few steps back. “Hello, my name is Mindy. May I help you?”

– Hi Mindy. My name is Iris. I need help crossing this busy street.

The room is silent. I have everybody’s attention.

– Now, let me take your arm and you can walk with me across. I will follow along.

We walk across the make-believe intersection. Mindy is mindful. “Watch your step,” she whispers. I wield my cane in front of me and take an exaggerated step up. We’ve made it to the sidewalk. Applause. We bow.

– Do you want to learn how I use my cane?

I’m on fire. I am surrounded by friendly people and I feel safe.

– Yes, they reply.

– You hold it lightly. The cane is like a divining rod. To find water, yes? Except, in our case, we’re looking for our way around. Then you sweep in front of you, tapping the ground lightly where your foot will land. You’re trying to determine if there is anything on the ground, a hole, a bump, an object. “Mindy, do you want to be the blind person and I will guide you?” Silence. “If you nod, I can’t see you. You have to speak up and say what you want.” “Yes, I would like to try.” I steel myself as I take off my glasses and hand over my cane. I feel naked without my attributes.

The door opens and something shifts in the room. “Hi Marsha,” comes Jackie’s sunny voice. Nobody else greets her. The troupe leader whispers to her. “We’re getting a lesson from Iris, the new troupe member, on how to properly help a blind person cross a busy intersection. You can introduce yourself after the demonstration.”

Mindy announces she’s ready.

– Before we start, you and I are not the same height, so the cane will not work as well for you. If any of you skis, you’ll know that the salesperson will fit you with poles according to your height. It’s the same idea. Now, close your eyes and spin around. Now, Stop!
I say, loudly, “Hello, my name is Iris. May I help you?”

– Hi, my name is Mindy. I want to go to the pharmacy next to the bank. I’m afraid I got lost.

– She’s facing the wall, shouts Marsha.

Time for a bit of tough love. I open my eyes which show a filmy white, quite repulsive to sighted people, I am told.

– Hey, Marsha. I’m Iris. I’m blind. Your comment doesn’t help. I’m going to tell you guys about echolocation. Please y’all, get up and face a wall. Now, Mindy, say your name out loud.

– Mindy!

– Now do a half-turn so your back is to the wall. Say your name again.

– Mindy!

– Everybody else do the same thing, one by one.

They do. I hear next the now-familiar voices, Jaya, which her slight accent, Jackie, energetic and sunny, Marsha, sulky, Carol, cautious, Robin, playful.

– Did you notice a difference?

Carol volunteers, “The sound is a bit deeper when it bounces off the wall.”

– Yes, exactly, Carol. You can figure out where obstacles are by listening how the sound travels. Research it on YouTube. Now, I will offer my arm to Mindy and we’ll cross the street.

We walk a few meters. I had automatically counted my steps previously, so I call out “curb” at the appropriate time. We step up and “land” on the sidewalk to scattered applause as this is no longer a new event. Mindy hands me back my glasses and cane. It feels warm and a bit moist to the touch. Her vibes are still in it, tentative and light. I feel better.

The troupe leader chimes in. “Thank you, Iris and Mindy. Marsha, do you want to say a few words about yourself?”

– Hi Iris. I’m Marsha. Me and Jackie are the oldest members of the troupe. We go to Sunnyview High. You’re new here?

– Hi Marsha. I’m new at girl guides.

I stop there. She is not my friend and I’m tired of being in the spotlight.

The troupe leader senses the awkwardness and moves right along. “All right, let’s all sing the Guide Marching Song and then one of you can explain to Iris what guiding is about.”

On our way home, I’m quiet. Mom doesn’t press. She knows I will talk when I’m ready. I let her take my hand in hers. It settles me. “She stole your intro. I was shocked when she mentioned the goddess.” Mom chuckles. “I was proud of you. You turned on a dime.”

She does this all the time because she knows I can’t resist. “What does that mean?”

“You turn quickly, as if your foot were on a coin.”

– Ahhhh. I ponder this for a while. “I’ll find a way to use it. Thanks. How is your book?”

– It’s fabulous! We’ve got another victim from a blow to the head. I don’t think a blow to the head would be enough to kill me. I have a thick head.

– The sisters were nice.

– Yes, I liked them both.

– Do you think a blow of the cane to Marsha’s head…

– Don’t go there.

 

Tall Tales

– I told you to stay away from that boy!
– It’s my fault. I got scared.
– Why did you go to him anyways?
– He was holding a cherry.
– You always were a sucker for sweets. Look where it got you.
– I’m not going out looking like that.
– You sure are, Missy. You will not be missing your cousin Lizzy’s wedding.
– I will be a laughingstock.
– You’re not the first one it’s happened to. With everyone there, nobody will notice.

She was putting on false eyelashes. Brooding, the young fired her last arrow. “I brought it back. Do you think dad could reglue it?” Mother rolled her eyes. “Stop being such a baby.”

They headed out to the reception, huddling together.
– I hate fall weddings. They put me to sleep, said Father.
– Why am I stuck with whiners? replied Mother.
Soon, they joined the others. The young stayed sheepishly with her parents, scanning the room. She spotted her cousin Marv and went to him.
– You too?
– Hahaha! These things happen. How did you lose yours?
– A boy offered me a cherry. When I came near, he grabbed me and lifted me up in the air. I was so scared, I lost it.
– Bummer.
– You?
– I was minding my own business, when I heard a hissing sound in the brush. I didn’t have time to run away quickly enough. It stung my tail, so I dropped it. You should have seen it wriggling on the ground! The snake kept attacking it. I hid under a log and watched the whole thing. The snake ate my tail! It was so gross! I’m lucky I came out of it alive!
– Wow!
– You need to change your story.
– Pardon me?
– Your story. About losing your tail. You won’t get any sympathy for that.
– But it’s the truth.
– You don’t have to, but you’ll be miserable all evening if you don’t.
– Do you have any suggestions? she asked coldly.
– Well, I already did the snake bite.
– Is it true?
– Does it matter? See, you gotta own your new state, flaunt it.
Marv was her hero. He was so self-assured.
– I couldn’t pull it off.
– Suit yourself. I see some stunned flies. You want some? he asked and headed to the buffet.
She followed close behind. More cousins were there, eating. Some sniggered, others stared. She was happy to be with Marv.
– Here come the tailless club! shouted Albert, the mean one.
– Better than to be part of the headless club! replied Marv, amidst laughter.
– I see you got yourself a girlfriend, continued Albert, undeterred.
– Where’s your headless date? replied Marv.

They were at a standstill, eyes locked, neither backing down. A voice came from the back.
– What happened to you?
– We were eating grubs at this fancy new place that just opened near the weeping willows – you know the place I’m talking about? Well, be careful if you go there. There’s an old gray cat prowling about. It’s lost part of its tail too, in a fight, no doubt. It can’t regrow its tail, of course. Maybe that’s why it loooves lizards so much. Let’s just leave it at that. We were lucky to make it out alive.

They got their stunned flies and kept walking. The cousins stayed behind, subdued. Marv was working the crowd like a politician, though the maneuvering was made difficult by the absence of a tail. Here and there, clusters of older folks were snoozing.
– Look, they’re getting a head-start on hibernating, he chuckled.
– My dad is with them, dozing off. He can be so embarrassing.
– Don’t let it be. It’s all about attitude, kiddo. The stunned flies are good, no?
– They are. I’d never had them before. I usually like sweet stuff.
– At any proper wedding, they’ve got grubs on leaves. Sweet and sour. You’ve gotta try it.
He stopped a waiter, who hailed another. The other waiter made its way towards them, holding his tray high above the crowd.
– Not many left, I’m afraid.
– Thank you kindly, replied Marv. After you, kiddo.
She tried a mouthful of grub and leaves. “OMG, this is so good!”
They all beamed.
– It’s a house specialty. I’m glad you like it.
The waiter was smiling, looking her in the eye. She did not feel self-conscious about her lack of tail. These older guys were real gents.
– Thank you so much, she smiled. That was quite the treat.
The waiters bowed and kept going about their business. She was having a great time. Marv made her laugh. The bride and groom made their entrance, tails flicking this way and that, all frisky. Their tails had been adorned with white Coral bells, and they released a pleasant scent. The crowd cheered them, the old folks startled awake were shouting the loudest.

The new couple danced the first dance, and the dancing began in earnest. Marv took her hand and they joined the fray. They could not dance properly, being off-balance and such, so they opted for clumsily jumping up and down. Soon, other youngsters, who did not care for dancing, were imitating them to the beat of the music.

Eventually, her mother waved at her. She detached from her group of friends. “Love, we’ll be going soon. Say your good-byes. Your dad is getting too drowsy.”
She went back to Marv.
– We’re leaving. Thank you for a fabulous evening. I hope to see you when our tails have grown back.
– I had a wonderful time with you. Thank you for that. Next time we meet, I’ll treat you to something sweet at the fancy place near the weeping willows. For old times sake, he winked.

– It wasn’t so bad? asked Mother.
– As good as a dream, Mom. As good as a dream.

Guerilla Bar

It’s difficult to pick up your life after having been held hostage by freedom fighters. I was restless after the ordeal, easily startled, cowering if someone got mad. I couldn’t hold a job. I wasn’t much use to anyone. My friends tried to help, but what could they do? Once the initial shock of my return – You’re back! You’re alive! – was over, and I had told them something of the tale, we ran out of things to discuss.

I couldn’t go back to my old life. I had to rise from the rubble, rebuild myself and find ways to contribute again to society. I opened a theme bar. I drank a fair bit so knew something of the scene. My past life was in marketing which helped as well. And I had backers, friends and strangers who wanted me to succeed.

I poured my heart into the guerrilla bar. At all times, it was dark, hot and humid with a fake canopy of deep green leaves dropping from the ceiling, and recordings of monkey and bird calls. The waiters and waitresses were dressed up in khaki fatigues, boots, fake munition belts across their chests, fake rifles flung over their shoulders, prop knives and their likes. They wore grim expressions and scowled at the clients or ignored them. They didn’t always bring them the right order. They would lie and say we were out of whatever you ordered even though they served it to the client at the next table. They would abuse you verbally if you complained. They would chat amongst themselves for hours on end, looking bored. Regulars got to know the staff and bribed them. A whole subculture of bartering developed with the staff and between clients.

Once in a while, searchlights would shine through the canopy and rotor noises could be heard. Patrons were shoved unceremoniously to the ground or told to cower under tables and keep quiet. The staff was then hyperalert, confused and talking cryptically on their walky-talkies. The whole bar was shut down – no entry, no leaving. This only happened a few times a year and was coordinated with the fire department to ensure safety.

Surprisingly, the bar was a huge success. When we reached capacity, we would switch to plan B. We played the part of guerrilla under UN inspection. The staff would be friendly, rations plentiful and varied. There was no bribery, only increased jitters from the waitstaff. The last patrons to file in were asked to wear a blindfold as they were ushered in the back door through a maze of chairs. They were given an armband with a pink cross on it. They were given the best table, the best food and booze and encouraged to socialize with other tables.

It did something for my sanity. I was reliving the ordeal but de-escalating it, sanitizing the experience and controlling the outcome. It was far from a full-scale re-enactment, but it brought me back to my senses more quickly than sessions with the shrink. Reality and fiction blurred. People with PTSD came with their counsellors to try and decondition themselves. The counsellors came out with a better understanding and deeper respect for their clients. We were a force for good.

At first, I was concerned the bar would get the wrong kind of attention or might come under attack for its utter un-PC approach. I had to jump through hoops to ensure compliance with various bylaws. But I had a vision, and I pulled it through. I was repeatedly interviewed with regards to the bar, the questions straying from the live experience to the re-enactment. It was much easier that way and dug a deep trench between both.

After many years, I finally sold the bar and moved on. They got rid of the stuffy humid and hot atmosphere. The place has A/C for everyone’s comfort. They’ve switched the jungle soundtrack to urban guerilla music. The place has been deserted by veterans. It is now infested with Japanese tourists. Cell phone flashes have replaced searchlights. Postcards and used bullets are sold at the gift shop. Posters of Che Guevara line the walls.

The place has lost its soul. It is now a profitable venture.

I Turn to Stone

I read an article explaining a rare case of petrifaction, from the Latin Petrus – rock. It referred to me. My muscles are slowly hardening. At first, I thought it was arthritis settling in my joints but as I researched the symptoms I had to face facts: I am turning to stone.

My ex accused me of having a heart of stone. I think now she was just stating a fact. This heart of mine is static and cold. It has no edges on which feelings could get snagged.

I am not speaking in metaphors. The texture of my skin has changed, my appreciation of its colour as well. It is no longer a case for concern to look gray. Gray is beautiful. There is a weight to it which is pleasant to the eye. I’m becoming expressionless as even micromovements are getting frozen, losing momentum and settling into a mask, a caricature of my true self.

I’m putting on weight daily as soft tissue is giving way to hard mass. All water is getting displaced. I am slowly losing motor skills. The pain is bearable. It’s mostly a case of slowing down. I can very well imagine my respiratory system stopping to function, the bellows quieting in time. My minders will find a recumbent life-like figure and will start looking for me. How will I be able to convince them that I am it? In anticipation of such an event, I dressed with care. I wear a tunic in the style of a knight. It is a rare treat to choose exactly how you will be remembered and depicted.

I may have caught a virus on my trip in Amazonia. I veered off-track and came face-to-face with large stone statues. I was strangely mesmerised by them and stayed away from the group for a while. There was a sweet, sickening smell in the air which I ascribed to the lush vegetation. I suffered a mild headache in the evening, some confusion when I awoke in the dead of night. And the most fantastical dreams.

Already I am writing with difficulty. As well, my mouth no longer obeys me, my vocal cords no longer vibrate. My brain is still active, making up in agility and synaptic activity all that I have lost elsewhere. I am curious to know how long I will keep my consciousness.

Will I end up in a fossil museum alongside prehistoric logs?

I dimly hear some sounds. Someone is knocking on me, I think. There are hollow reverberations and hard sounds as well. I am trapped here. I didn’t expect to be conscious. I can feel confusion around me.

– And here we have a recumbent knight. Notice the fine details around the hands holding the sword?

– He is quite tall.

– He is taller than in the old days, it’s true. Will that be a problem?

– No, I suppose not. I was just remarking.

– What did you have in mind for him?

– I am buying him for my husband. Either for our rose garden or the crypt when he passes away. It’s his birthday next month. You do deliver? It’s meant as a surprise.

– I hope he will be pleased.

– What is your return policy?

– Full refund, of course.

She pays and leaves, oblivious to the Missing placards of a youth with a strange resemblance to her new purchase.

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.