Groceries

The next customer returned her smile. His red hair made a halo around his face. He made her think of a tall poppy. She chased that idea, tried to focus on the task at hand. She ran the cash at the supermarket. She tried to always be personable and efficient. She felt that showed best her professionalism. He had put his purchases on the conveyor belt, peanuts and other assorted nuts, chocolate bar, tortilla chips, bananas. She’d seen this before, customers buying snacks and a fruit to give themselves good conscience. She said, smiling “Quite the party you’re having”, because really, who could eat all that by themselves. She wanted to show she cared.

The customer looked at her and said slowly, meanly, “I’m not one to drown my sorry with Ben&Jerry. My lover left me, if you need to know. Not that I owe a perfect stranger an explanation for my purchases.” She had rung up his “grocery”, if you could call it that. She replied, “Nobody’s perfect,” indicating her name tag at the same time. It could be construed as an apology for her lack of discretion, but what it was is that she had taken offence at being called a perfect stranger. She resented the name tags, a pathetic gesture to personalize the interactions, when really, nobody ever bothered to say her name. Her name was Evelyn, as was proudly displayed on her tag, though everybody at home and even her friends called her “Ev”. He paid and left, without another word.

She sprayed some cleaning fluid on the little plastic window in front of the reader. She was not allowed to smoke or do her nails, not allowed to chew gum or wear perfume. The list was too long to commit to memory. She listened absent-mindedly to the music and then came ten o’clock. They dimmed the lights and turned the music off. This was a new thing – they had been primed to serve customers that were easily overwhelmed by sensory overload (she had learned the lingo to impress her relatives). Her uncles had asked what strange creatures would come out of the wood works. He was crass, but she was curious nonetheless. As soon as the lights dimmed, she saw people emerging from their cars, like zombies in the apocalypse. They staggered towards the dimmed store and suddenly she felt a bit exposed.

The crowd was quiet, subdued. She had expected a mad dash, as happened on Black Friday. She was observing the customers. They actually looked like normal people except they smiled more and talked amongst themselves, as though they now could see each other better. There was a kinship as happens during snowstorms, an acknowledged vulnerability that brought them closer. The customers took their time. They were there for real, doing their weekly grocery. The owner was walking amongst them, shaking hands and talking to them, playing the nice guy when he imposed so many rules on the cashiers. Oh, look smart, here comes a customer. She straightened and wished she had chewing gum to give herself a countenance. She missed working as a waitress sometimes, though she didn’t miss the assholes that came to the joint.

An old man came first, positively glowing. “Isn’t this marvelous? I wear hearing aids and the music and announcements just resonate in my skull. I usually dread coming here, but today was amazing.” He was gushing! She totalled his bill. She’d often seen him. Today, he’d treated himself to some goodies, probably to encourage the owner. It was good business, she thought unkindly, then chided herself. “I sound just like Uncle Bill.” She forced a smile and a nod. “I’m happy this new initiative worked for you. Is there anything more I can do for you today?” They had been prepped to sound compassionate. She would’ve liked to be an actress, had the looks and the brains, but not the cash. She swallowed a sigh. “Sure, I’ll take a winning lottery ticket.” “Good luck,” she said, kindly this time.

Behind him was a lady she knew with her strange child. He wasn’t clingy today nor “spastic.” He usually did this thing with his hands, waving them in front of his eyes, his mom looking away stoically. Today, he was looking around, almost relaxed. “How was your experience today?” she asked by herself, genuinely curious now. Tears glistened in the lady’s eyes. “Night and day. I am so grateful you’ve done this. Do you think you’ll do it again?” “If there is enough interest, we will. I’ll make sure to tell my boss. He wants to hear from all the customers.” “God bless,” added the lady as they took their bags. Now that she didn’t expect.

There was a steady stream of customers now, but no one seemed to be in a hurry. She felt as though they were travelling back in time, with actual conversations, unhurried and friendly. She realized she’d felt a bit stressed at first, but was happy now. The customers’ good mood was contagious. She didn’t see them as zombies anymore. They themselves walked straighter, no longer skulking in corners but fully inhabiting their space. She was observant, part of her training to be an actress. You had to continually research characters. The owner greeted the late comers. “We will be resuming normal operations in 15 minutes. The dimmed lights and absence of music are on purpose.” Most people knew. They had been featured on the local news and in the paper. Some were just gawkers. She blushed when she saw Uncle Billy walking in.

He was staring at the customers, with a superior grin. Nobody paid him any mind. After a few minutes, he stopped his circus and made a purchase. He stood in line at her cash, waving excitedly as though she hadn’t spotted him miles away. There was a soft announcement over the PA system. “Dear customers, in five minutes, we will turn the music and lights back on. Please make your way to the cash if you need to do so at this time. Thank you for coming today. we hope you had a positive shopping experience.” Her uncle’s presence annoyed her. She could feel his gaze on her and didn’t appreciate the interactions with the other customers fully because of it. When it was his turn, he’d bought a loaf of dark rye bread, his favourite. “I seem to have missed all the weirdos,” he said loudly. She stared him down. “They’re at my cash right now, Uncle Bill.” It was his turn to blush and fumble for his change. He slunk away. The lights came back on. She took a bow.

The maitre d’

« No thanks, I don’t drink, » I say, putting my hand over the top of my glass. It’s a classy joint, so I don’t get the usual stink-eye. The maitre d’ (I told you it was a classy joint) offers me a Virgin Caesar, fizzy water, fruit juice. I settle on San Pellegrino, after he rattles off a bunch of choices. He brings it in a bourbon glass with a slice of lemon and a cherry for colour. My date is not impressed, clearly thinking I failed her.

She whispers, “You didn’t tell me you don’t drink.” I whisper back, “I didn’t think it mattered.” She huffs and puffs. “Well, I’m having a drink.” This simple interaction has become my personal acid test for new relationships. It exposes the insecurities and feelings of self-worth of my counterpart in subtle and obvious ways. At first, I was apologizing for my choice, explaining my motives, pretexting health issues. The truth is, I drink when I feel like it, and that has become less and less often with time.

My vis-à-vis grabs her drink and chugs it back with a vengeance. I attack my appetizer in silence. She seems to be seething. I am curious. I feel I am conducting a social experiment. The asparagus is tender. I love the taste of vegetables in season. And this chef is amazing. I am immersed in the sensations in my mouth. I glance up to ask my date if she’s happy with her choice and find her looking at me, glass in hand. She peers over her glass, “You’re not gay, are you?” (That’s a new one!) “Why would I be gay?” “You seem pretty intent on your food.” (Oh my, wait till I tell Emily about this.)

I thought I’d kept my face neutral, but the maitre d’ quickly appears at her side, concern etched on his features. “Is the appetizer not to madam’s taste?” Olivia has not eaten a bite. She dismisses him with a wave. You can almost hear the wind as she shoos him away. He floats off with a sad look, his eyes riveted to mine, sorrowful beyond words. When mom passed away, her will stipulated her three children must all be married within three years of her death before any of us may enjoy their part of the inheritance. The spouses stand to inherit half. Emily and Burton are already married, but I am stubbornly single. They have been presenting me eligible women to choose from, in the hope they can start benefitting soon from their inheritance. Of course, I can’t just marry anyone. They’d get a say in the way the fortune is spent. So I’ve been going on these dates with random women, some of whom are quite nice, others who are more “interesting.”

I look up at Olivia, fiddling with her Belgian endives, blue cheese and date. “You seem preoccupied, Olivia,” I say kindly. She rubs her toes on my shin, playing footsies under the table. The tablecloth hides the movement, but I still blush at her audacity. (What would Mother do?) I am not quick-witted. I am slow and deliberate. I am not my mother’s son as this fiasco painfully shows. Mother had warned me about vulgar ladies. The shoddily-applied lipstick was a dead giveaway. We’re just grabbing a bite before heading to the opera. I hope she won’t be disappointed. “How about we skip the music tonight?” she says, pressing her toes to make her point clear. I signal the maitre d’. He fills her glass as she smiles broadly. Minutes later, he comes to the table and whispers “An urgent call at the front desk.”

I excuse myself and follow him. The maitre d’, Burton, can tell when I’m distressed. He’s my brother after all. “What’s happening?” I explain my predicament. “I was looking forward to my evening at the opera, but she’s saying she won’t go. She wants to… you know.” I say, mortified. “What time does the opera start?” “In another hour.” “Take my place for the next 30 minutes. Ask to leave in 30. Emily will call in a replacement” It’s Emily’s restaurant, she’ll understand. We exchange uniforms. I am a bit heftier, so the uniform is tight. My suit looks better on him than on me. He’ll have more success with her. Did I mention we are twins? Nobody ever looks at the maitre d’ or sees beyond the uniform. We’ve traded places so many times in our lives, it just feels natural. Burton’s always seeing me out of a pickle. He walks back in and picks up where I left off. I clear away the plates.


I bring my impersonator the bill, adding a generous tip for fun. I can’t tell whose paying whom with what money. As always, the lines are blurred between identities as well as fortune. We have trouble drawing lines in our family and Mother’s will has made things worse. We’re always discussing, and the family now feels like a gelatinous mass in which everybody wades desperately trying to escape inertia. Burton surprises me by handing me the two opera tickets. Of course, they were in my shirt pocket which Burton ended up wearing. That was a close one. “I hear you enjoy Barber. Tonight, Vanessa is playing. It’s your luck that we are unable to make it. Please have my chauffeur come forward. We’re heading to a nightclub.” We both keep a straight face. My chauffeur has delivered a suitable replacement suit that I will change into for the opera as soon as the couple will have left the scene.

Vanessa is an obscure opera. Those are the ones I enjoy the most. It is perfect in the mood I find myself in, with endless intrigues and reversals. I feel that way about my life. Opera seems to describe me, one aria at a time. I vibrate and buzz, more than any drug could induce in me. The same cannot be said for Burton. Though extremely moral and extremely married, he considers it his duty to right a wrong. He tells me later they did go to a nightclub. Because she was looking around, he concluded she was looking for the ladies. He wanted to show her a good time and directed her to the powder room, in this club, the room with the powder i.e. cocaine. She came back sniffling and in a great mood. He had ordered champagne. “I told her I don’t drink!” “She forgave you. I said “I” didn’t drink… when I ate.” I grunt. “She loved the music, complimented me on my taste and stopped flirting with me. I invited others at the table and found her a suitable companion. I told her I had to leave but she could have my chauffeur drive her back when she was ready. The usual.”

We may be twins, but he’s the other side of the mirror, and my reputation doesn’t concern him as much as it concerns me. I’m seen as the bad boy because of his impersonations, yet I can’t manage without him. It’s Cyrano de Bergerac all over again and we all know how that ended. It wasn’t pretty. I may end up marrying loyal Mabel, whom Mother did not hold in high esteem. We’ve been to all the same schools, our families know each other, our grandfathers had a falling out after they tried to enter in partnership. Marrying her would tie our families closer than ever, which Mother did not want. I think Dad had an affair with Mabel’s mother, which would explain the antagonism. It’s a real soap opera. Maybe I should get both our DNA tested discreetly to ensure we’re not half-siblings. That would explain the attraction and the prohibition. Emily suggested I look into online dating sites. She said it in jest, but she may have a point. I am running out of suitable candidates and I am loathe to submit Mabel to the indignity of a DNA test. What if she were our half-sister? Then she should inherit too. My head spins. We only need to avoid procreating so we don’t inbreed.


I need to get this settled. I feel as out of place as an olive in a glass of beer. I move slowly, with the grace of an ocean liner, dignified and sturdy, ancient, classic. Two years have passed and time is running out. Emily and Burt don’t want to be cheated out of their inheritance. The three of us meet to discuss the issue. We bat around some ideas, a ball – I don’t dance – the Internet, I tried with no success. We’ve gone through our relations, distant cousins, younger women. None of the ideas please me until Emily lobs the tennis idea. I happen to love tennis. Emily will propose a tournament for eligible female bachelors. The cup they are competing for is my hand. At the end of the tournament, I will declare the winner. I fancy myself a good judge of character and sports to me are a great way to reveal character. In my view, mental toughness is what distinguishes the best players from the fray.

The tournament attracts thirty candidates, some unlikely, but I am willing to entertain them all. They know what is at stake and are fighting for my attention and affection. I watch every game, and take notes. The sore losers, the bad-tempered, the mild mannered, the poor players, the whiners, they all get a rating. I decide who makes it to the next round. In a game, sometimes both adversaries advance. Some get eliminated in the first round. It is exhilarating. I now have eight potential mates, all equally interesting. Some of the ladies who have been eliminated have hung around to see who the winner will be. I keep an eye on them as well. Mabel is in the rejects, which shows the high quality of the applicants. Their reactions are still interesting to me. They are all coached by their mothers, and that shows me the family dynamics as well. Every evening, I pour over my notes. It feels like a reality show. I feel omnipotent. We’re down to a quadrille. I decide to have them play double, on a whim.

It turns out to be an excellent idea. I rotate them to see how they interact. I can’t decide between Mia and Madison. They are both rated equally high tied in the top spot. We regroup and discuss strategy. At this point, Burt says to go to the one I am most physically attracted to. Emily counters that I’m looking for a life partner and that physical beauty fades, where internal beauty improves with age. I agree with Emily, but I don’t know how to proceed. I turn to her for more ideas, since she’s the one who came up with the tennis tournament. “Now you need to interview them separately. You know their temperament. They are both steadfast, tough, impassive, and display impressive sportsmanship. Now you need to know what they expect from you.” It is sound advice, as always. My twin is out of his depth, as am I. I decide not to meet them over a meal, seeing that I had so many disastrous experiences. I decide to go on a walk with Mia. We stroll on the compound and sit in the shade. We talk. I decide on Madison, almost instantly. We announce the winner.

I am asked by the mothers to explain what made the difference. I am ashamed to tell anyone, even my wife-to-be. I make up explanations. In my heart of hearts, I know it’s because Maddy is just like Mother. Strong-willed, righteous, tenacious, and so I love her and she, in turn, will love me. Both Emily and Burt rejoice. The inheritance is ours to share. Mother smiles in her grave. She will live on, through Madison’s spirit if we don’t have children. It is the perfect choice.

First Skate

Mark was a slow-moving, lumbering man. People often compared him to a bear. He didn’t have a bear’s ferocity, nor speed when he ran. At least, I assume not, because I only saw him moving at one speed: slowly. He had a great smile, an insufferable accent, and loved to hear himself speak. Come winter, he always walked around with a pair of skates over his shoulder. Manolito was a newcomer to the country and my classmate. I had gotten new skates last year. He was small so I had him try on my old ones. With an extra pair of woolen socks, they fit perfectly. I had decided to teach him how to skate and Mark joined us when he saw them hanging by their long laces on our shoulders.

“Headed for the pond?” “Yes, have you been yet this year?” “No, I thought I might have a look.” We walked together, after introductions, Mark trailing with his shuffling gait, us boys scampering on ahead, a little excitement pulling us all along. The trail was packed by other eager feet. We heard the metallic sound of blades hitting the ice. There was not much sound apart from the scraping, other than the occasional scream and thump from falls, followed by murmurs when kids were pulling other kids up. We turned a bend and saw the pond. It was well attended with Billy and Joe and Peter and others I didn’t recognize at first glance. We dropped down onto the snow and took our boots off. Mark arrived and looked around with a smile. He was tall. If he sat, he might not be able to stand back up. He leaned against a tree and proceeded to change into his skates.

Manolito and I were done fast. I helped Manolito lace the skates tight and saw his surprise when I pulled him up. He was unnaturally tall on the blades and ready to topple back in the snow. I guided him to the edge, walking slowly. He had put both his hands on my shoulders to steady himself. I descended upon the pond and turned around to face him. “Slowly,” I advised. He put one wobbly foot on the hard surface, then another. From the corner of my eye, I could see Mark detaching himself from the lamppost and see his labored breath condensed in front of his mouth. It was probably everybody’s first time of the season. The ice was pockmarked. Here and there tall grasses broke through the surface and tripped the unsuspecting skaters. “This way, Manolito.” Bravely, he started dragging his feet, trying to walk with those contraptions.

“Glide,” I said unhelpfully, as I strode away. The new skates were amazing, sturdier and the right size. My feet were happy, I could wiggle my toes. I soon forgot about Manolito as I saw Tom and his sister Kate , Anthony and Peter, and joined them to compare skates and stories. With a pang, I realized I’d forgotten about Manolito. Mark was talking to him, with large arm movements. He put his arm out and Manolito took hold of it. Mark started dragging Manolito around. He was so graceful, even with this weight attached to his arm. For his part, Manolito’s job was to stay upright and watch the scenery. Mark was skating effortlessly, away from the rough edges to give poor Manolito a chance to keep his balance. The speed helped and Mark was talking non-stop.

Cautiously, Manolito tried to imitate him. He was scrawny but emboldened by Mark’s steady arm. He kept losing his balance, the skates giving out under his feet and pulling him forward as his head drew an arc back towards the ice, but his grip was good and his tottering gave way to a more stoic stance. They were a sight to see, Mark gliding away, followed by what looked like his tree. As Manolito started to relax, he increased his speed, and soon we were watching them circling us, like a circus act, thinking that at any moment poor Manolito would come hurtling towards one of us like a bowling ball and topple us down like pins. We could hear Mark talking and soon, still holding Manolito, he turned and started skating backwards effortlessly, all the while holding Manolito’s gaze on his own. Manolito started gliding too, imitating Mark’s long strides. I don’t know who started clapping, but pretty soon a rhythmic clapping accompanied them, muffled mitten sounds, then stomping blades and chanting. We had retreated to the edges, leaving the nicer, smoother part of the pond to the pair.

Mark said something and sent Manolito sailing in the air. The chanting stopped as we saw his body suspended mid-air, Manolito’s exhilarated face turned to the sky before pummeling back to the ice. But Mark caught him effortlessly and deposited him on the pond, before pushing him off in a straight line. He hadn’t yet learned to stop and so Tom came to the rescue and grabbed his elbow before he barrelled into someone. He expertly turned him around and started skating with him in the other direction. Kate took him off his hands. She was the same size as Manolito and their strides were equal. One by one, kids accompanied him back and forth, to the chanting and clapping of the others. He was grinning so much we thought his face would forever stay that way, frozen in perpetual glee. The light was falling and the cold was getting fierce. Reluctantly, we brought Manolito back to the edge and sat him down in the snow. His eyes were lighting up the small area where he sat. Kate helped him out of his skates and into his boots. When he stood, he looked as unsteady as when he first put on his skates and we ribbed him gently.

All the kids were now shod again and about to leave when we looked back once more at the deserted pond. Mark’s silhouette could still be seen gliding in furious circles, doing arabesques and jumps, no longer a lumbering bear, oblivious to the dwindling light, happiness lighting the way.

Rain

The rain is pouring down the full-face helmet like tears from heaven, which is where she’ll end up if she doesn’t find a refuge soon. She’s slowed down to better handle the motorcycle in the rain. It’s her first time with this bulky one, made for trips with its unyielding saddle bags. She’s lined them with garbage bags to waterproof them and put a warm hoodie on top. She’s thinking she may change into it. Bingo! Overpass. Two other riders are already there. She signals and stops in the dry, the deafening noise abating. She considers the other two. Males, of course. They don’t seem to be traveling together.

She kicks the stand, pulls the heft of the bike up and feels it going down with a satisfying snap. She’s done the manoeuvre umpteenth times, but she’s still nervous in front of others. She’s petite, so she’s clearly female. She takes off her helmet and clips it to the side to give herself something to do as the other two watch. The younger one is fretting around his bike, tussling his hair with one hand, the other holding his helmet. The other man is stationary, just watching. She approaches them, nods.

– Hi, I am Thierry, says the young man, extending a hand she shakes. It’s bloody inconvenient all this rain. I am still far from destination and I don’t like night riding. You?

“Hi, I’m Jolene,” she lies. “I’m meeting up with my husband (she looks at her watch) in an hour or so at the Wapu Inn. Don’t know if he’s stuck under an underpass too.” She lies easily for protection. There is no husband, though there is a Wapu Inn in about an hour’s time.

They turn to the third person. He’s wearing a bandana and is eyeing them with beady eyes. His muscular forearms are crossed on his torso. He’s classic bad ass in jeans, t-shirt and jean vest. He’s dry, which means he outran the rain. He’s more savvy than the two of them put together.

– How much longer do you think it will rain? she asks.

He shrugs and looks away at the sky. He’s made himself comfortable. He’s got the best spot, close to the wall. The cars slow down to pass them and gawk. Nobody dares stop. One biker looks vulnerable, two may be a couple, three are trouble. She shivers. She has no fat to speak of. She goes to a saddle to retrieve her hoodie and a toque. She doesn’t want to cool down. She checks everybody’s boots. Hers and the bandana guy’s are well worn. The boy’s are not yet broken into. The man and she exchange a look.

She can tell he’s followed her thoughts, but he makes no attempt to show if he’ll help protect the youth from himself or not. She decides he hasn’t made up his mind yet and leaves it at that. A fourth motorcyclist stops, coming from the other side of the road. They are separated by two lanes. He nods to acknowledge them but doesn’t dismount. He goes through the motions of turning off the engine, but he leaves the radio on. Music can be heard faintly from large speakers. Shortly after, another motorcyclist stops at the side of the newcomer. They exchange a few words and he goes and parks further. He’s Black, which is unusual. He nods at us, and we nod back. Again, I glance at the bandana man, who feigns not to see me. He’s staring at Thierry with a glint of merriment in his eyes, like Thierry is putting on a show for his amusement. The rain is letting up. Thierry has taken out bright yellow rain gear he’s changed into while the others have arrived. He’s getting ready to go, still agitated at the idea of being late.

– It’s different rules for bikes, she tries to explain to him. People around you have to understand you’re at the mercy of the weather. Better to arrive alive, yes?

– It’s my girlfriend, he blurts out. She says I’m always late picking her up.

– Stay safe, she offers in a worried voice.

He leaves, a bright yellow sun parting the curtain of rain. The gray soon engulfs him, and he’s gone. She’s grown relaxed in the bandana man’s quiet presence. The overpass shudders with the passage of trucks but otherwise it feels like a husk, except when the cars drive through, piercing their fragile cocoon. She’s comfortable waiting. She doesn’t feel the itch to take out a book. Well, maybe a little. The two bikers on the other side are sharing a smoke and laughing. She feels as though she’s on the outside looking in. She’s warmed up. She pulls off her gloves and lays them on the seat of her bike.

– Husband, eh?

He’s pointedly looking at her ringless fingers. He’s got a deep voice, rather pleasant. She shrugs and pulls up the corners of her mouth in a tight smile. He finally detaches from the wall and extends his left hand. She looks at the right one, so he obliges and puts it up for her to see. He’s missing the pinky. She shakes the left hand with her left. “Pete,” he says. “Jean,” she answers, off guard. The rain has picked up again, with gusts of wind. She’s thinking of Thierry. Pete says, as though following her thoughts, “He may just come back, you know.” She nods, mechanically. “You have any kids?” he asks, acknowledging her maternal stirrings towards Thierry.

She hears herself answer “Not yet,” to her surprise. She’s never considered raising a family so this is not a typical answer for her.  And why did she blurt out her real name to this man? She’s behaving erratically. “From the looks of it, I’d say we should be able to leave soon. See how the low clouds are moving fast? Above them, the sky has cleared. The sun will dry this stretch of road in no time.” He’s coherent and knowledgeable. She’s curious now. Her preconceptions had gotten the best of her. He’s not a typical Harley rider, though he’s got the half helmet, reminiscent of WWI war movies. It looks like a soldier’s helmet, on closer inspection. “Vet?” she asks. “My granddad’s,” he answers proudly. “Got him through a war. Should get me through this life.”

The men on the other side are starting their bikes. The sweet smell of gas fills the air. She hurries to her bike and takes the toque and hoodie off, puts on her high gloves and helmet. Pete is watching her appreciatively. He’s fastened his helmet and put on a leather jacket with fringes. It looks natural on him. They start their engines and slowly ease back on the slick road. He’s motioned to her to ride in front and they ride together for a while. He’s got her back.

 

 

 

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.

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.

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.

Mr. President

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

– Mr President? May I help you with something?

– I don’t smoke anymore, do I?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Angel

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s Christmas day.

Into the Woods

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

The Eye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Eye for an Eye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Where’s Cathy? You guys came separately?

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

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

– No, I didn’t want any.

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

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

Sentient Beings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sun and Moon

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

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

– Pleaase Anak! pleaded Sami

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Olympic Fever  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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