Killer Bunnies

Once upon a time there lived a very mean king with a large herd of bunnies. They were bred as killing machines, the meek ones serving as prey to the others. The guards had developed a carnivore breed, bigger and stronger than normal rabbits but with deceptively soft fur. They were all brown except for a white mark on their breasts that identified the bad gene.

They bred easily and were resistant to illness. They were also highly trainable – their teeth were deadly weapons. The king had many enemies, but they stayed away from his castle. He was prone to improbable fits of rage which paralysed his entourage. As he was the king, they feared questioning his orders because they wanted to protect their families from his wrath.

Outside the walls, ordinary people grumbled about the high taxes he levied on them. They feared the brown and white bunnies who sometimes attacked their cattle en masse. There were so many of them but the ranchers’ claims seemed so ridiculous… “My cow was killed by a herd of bunnies” hardly seemed serious. They were shamed into submission. Over time, as the bunnies became more brazen, the people started fighting back with lawsuits against the King, which he disregarded haughtily.

Escalation was inevitable and soon the brewing discontent reached a boiling point. Foreign powers were happy to provide bunnies without the mean strain but with the same markings to make them indistinguishable from the mean ones. It was hope the interbreeding would dilute the strength of the bunny army. It was easy to turn the guards against the mean king. They were being ridiculed, attacked verbally every day. The dignity of their position was gone.

The diluted bunnies were easily spotted because they grazed incessantly, as was their wont. The mean ones looked you in the eye. They attacked if you made a sudden move, instead of running. People killed them from afar, and left the meat to rot, afraid as they were of becoming mean themselves. They had noticed that the temperament of birds of prey seemed to have changed, as they ripped little bodies apart with glee. The mutant bunnies were polluting their environment, spreading a meanness previously unknown to these parts.

The villagers met to discuss. The normal strain was not equalizing things quickly enough; meanness was one leap ahead. They were reluctant to kill all the bunnies. After all, the bunnies were only expressing their genes, it was no fault of theirs. They could not be held responsible for the conditions of their lives. Was extermination possible? The good people did not want blood on their hands. You always missed a few and the genocide made the others more determined. Could they be convinced to change? A lull while people thought the new idea over. Could we learn to live with it? Agitated grumblings.

Finally, someone uttered the solution nobody was willing to contemplate. What is the root of the situation? The person who ordered the strain to be created. Could we set the bunnies on their creator and against each other? How could we do that? Jodi piped up. She was the shoemaker’s daughter, a fine poacher. The whole village was assembled; you never knew where the next bright idea might come from.

“I’ve been watching them closely,” she started. Her father looked up sharply. “From far away,” she added quickly, afraid of his temper. “After the heavy rains the other day, I saw them attacking each other. The bunny that was attacked was covered in dirt. I think if they don’t see the white marking, they assume the other is prey.“ “What about the other animals that have also been contaminated?” But nobody listened anymore. Once they found an idea, they had no room for another.

Voices rose excitedly. They spoke well into the night, expanding and planning. They wanted the brood neutralized by any means. Each was assigned a piece of land to sanitize.  And so, over the week, bunnies were spray painted, covered in shoeshine, muddied and they started turning on each other. The numbers dwindled but soared again. The bunnies felt pressure to replenish their ranks.

The villagers met again, sullen. Regicide was on everybody’s mind, though no one spoke it out loud. An edict had been proclaimed whereby anybody caught staining a bunny would be fed to the bunnies. At that point, there were rumours that the killer bunnies had moved to nearby towns, terrorizing the townspeople. They were looking for ways to exterminate the vermin. Desperate suggestions were put forward – burning the castle and breeding grounds, poisoning the bunnies, unleashing wolves. Someone objected that if the wolves mutated and became mean, there would be hell to pay.

The priest spoke at length, but nobody could follow his rhetoric and most people fell asleep. They were grateful for his intervention as nobody had been sleeping much because of their fears. Being all together under one roof listening to him drone on afforded them a bit of sleep.

The king’s advisors were also trying to limit damages. They had convinced the king to use the bunnies as bodyguards but advised against a widespread use of them, explaining they had become unmanageable. The mean king ordered them all killed. Large cages were overstuffed with bunnies and the ones who did not suffocate to death were drowned. He wanted the furs intact and commissioned local seamstresses to make a cape out of the furs, as well as various garments that he gave as presents to his allies. The seamstresses created beautiful designs with the white marks. It made the enemy easier to spot.  Thirty rabbits had been kept as bodyguards as well as three couples of breeders. Males and females were kept separate and only allowed to mate infrequently to replenish the stock.

The king loved his new capes. He had a royal one made for important occasions, and a shorter one for riding. Local women had gathered to design the capes. Without the court’s knowledge, they had drawn upon Jodi’s observations and designed what they hoped would be the equivalent of a target on his back. They had alternated the white marks in such a way as to create a design that was pleasing to the human eye, but a symbol of distress in animals, a sort of Morse code if you will. They were hoping it spelled the doom of the king. Few were in the know, and those who were trusted with the information were sworn to secrecy. Every seamstresses’ life depended on them sewing their lips shut.

As the king was out on a hunting trip, the bunnies had been released to flush out pheasants. The hunting party had stopped to eat in a clearing. Long tables had been set up, but the food was not yet being served. The hunt had been extremely successful, and the king wanted to show off the bunnies. It had been a chilly morning, and though the sun was now out, the king had kept his cape on to show it off. His fellow hunters were also showing off their garb, allies proudly displaying the garments the king had had made up for them. They were eager to show their allegiance, and how much the king valued them.

To everybody’s surprise, as the king turned his back on the bunnies to address his allies, the bunnies attacked him and devoured him, despite the cape or because of it. No one reacted, because the king had forbidden that his precious bunnies be slayed. As the king lay dying, he cursed his misfortune at missing the elaborate picnic. As descendants donned the cape, the bunnies turned on them and so the king’s bloodline no longer flowed. The remaining bunnies were exterminated to the last, freeing the kingdom of their tyranny and removing the mean king and his family from the throne. The seamstresses had wittingly created a design that spelled his death.

The Gandhi of journalism

She had never taken journalism classes. She fell into journalism by chance. It was free fall, more than freelance, until she somehow latched on to a parachute. She had her own brand of interviewing techniques. She would spend time with the interviewee, watch the person interact with others, get a feel for them and their politics. She might ask them to act out how they felt, but generally did not question them. She relied on intuition, proximity, chemistry and good old observation. After spending as much time as possible with her subject, she would then proceed to write stunningly accurate portraits of them. She had decided early on that words were misleading, that people lied or hid behind words. Everybody was afraid of being misquoted. Based on that, and fearless in her approach, she had decided that body language was a more adequate interview technique than anything she had run across.

What first attracted the attention of the New Yorker editors was a piece she did for a minor competitor. Of course, scouts were forever reading competing journals, in an attempt to poach the good writers before they even knew their value. They got them cheap and kept their salaries low as long as they could muster it. She had done a vivid portrait of a rap artist, without ever quoting him, except that the rhythm of the piece mimicked his sound so well that you felt you were inside his skull. She had asked if she could be part of his entourage for a day, and just hang out. She had done her research, studying his lyrics but not polluting her mind with articles on his success or shows. She strove to be a blank slate, wanting to feel the imprint of the person she was doing a piece on. He had reacted to her – as a woman, a journalist and a possible fan. She had not tried to dispel any of his preconceptions, letting the scenario play itself out.

He had soon forgotten about her. She took no notes, did not ask questions, nor request time alone with him. He could feel her gaze upon him but that did not faze him. He wore glitzy clothes when he went out in public, was generous with his time. She felt him to be a lonely person putting on a show, eager to please yet full of integrity. It matched the tortured voice that resonated so well with his young audience. She presented him the piece before sending it for publication. He was shocked at how well she had perceived his contradictions and rendered them without qualifying him and, against his handler’s advice, had given his okay without requesting any changes. He was not above controversy and thought she showed the real him, which was a rare present. He was rarely conscious of himself anymore so seeing that benevolent version of himself renewed his faith in himself. He bought one hundred copies for himself and close friends, but ended up keeping a few in the end. His friends were disappointed because they did not appear in the piece, had not been asked for their opinion.

This early success had led to others as the rapper was well-connected and eager to promote the journalist. She did not lack for work and actually had a waiting list. She did not seek fortune. She wanted genuine contact and had to prepare herself mentally and emotionally for the task. She only “interviewed” on her own terms and became sought after. Rolling Stones offered her a lucrative contract, which gave her free rein for the following year, provided they could impose five subjects. For the most part, it worked out fine. Artists were clamouring for attention. She was the darling of the day as far as journalists went. As much as some artists wanted to be photographed by someone in particular, everybody wanted to see their true self on paper.

She did not disappoint. She had a way of finding the hidden gem, the redeeming quality. Her employer did not try and trip her, nor saddle her with impossible candidates. If she felt like pursuing someone who appeared nasty, they let her do it. Often, the nastiness had resulted from bad chemistry between the interviewer and the interviewee. She did not have favourite subjects. She would be reading and come across someone she was curious to know better. She would notify her boss and set up an appointment then get to work erasing herself, become an absorbing agent that would blot anything pouring out of her subject. She had a good handshake, a bit long and uncomfortable, but that initial contact gave the tone of the interaction. She could feel the energy of her subject, either nervous or binding. It thrilled her to mix her vibrations with extraordinary men, women and children. She travelled around the world, visiting remote villages and ordinary suburbs. She was at ease everywhere since she took on her surroundings with the same technique she applied to people.

Nevertheless, her work took its toll on her. She was quickly exhausting her reserves, so enthusiastic was she to apply her craft.  She eventually had to mostly give up her career, touring the speaker circuit for a while. She was surprised at how few people genuinely understood what she did. Real followers were few. The test was for them to spend time with her and write a piece on her. The select few who handed back a blank piece of paper were part of her inner circle. However, journalism attracted another type of person which meant her brand of journalism did not catch on much. She was an oddity in her chosen profession. The ones she vetted did very well, but their careers were short-lived because it took so much out of them if they chose to put themselves in the line of fire.

Truth was handled with care and though the journalists got paid, the pieces did not always get published. Indeed, the Secret Police recruited among her followers and soon they were put to work for the State. Others tried to fake their way and “do the blotter” but their pieces rang false and they were denounced by those in the know. Still, many were exposed to this approach and benefitted from it to some extent in their personal lives. She was the object of books and a movie was made about her. With no degree and no credentials, she managed to break into this stronghold. She was the Gandhi of journalism.

Ballerina

Nina’s mom sewed the last of her costume, grumbling, and irate. Nina told her to show some love, or it wasn’t going to work. Irina showed some teeth, a forced smile that fooled no one. Nina didn’t really care. Her mom was a brilliant seamstress and she was always grumbling, ever the perfectionist. In this regard, they were Siamese twins. “Mamoschka,” she cooed…Her mom gave her a stern look. “Well, Irina, can I try it on?” “Strip!” she commanded. Docile, Nina stripped down to her underwear, then added the heavy stockings. The outfit was tight on her, which was perfect. It looked like an olden time skater’s costume. White leotard with long sleeves, short jacket with cuffed faux fur, short white skirt trimmed with faux fur, faux fur hat. She looked the part. Irina was eyeing her critically. She had to admit, “You look beautiful, Ninochka.” Nina did not allow her to crush her on her bosom “You’ll wrinkle it!”

“Do a few steps. Show your poor Mama before she goes blind doing all your sewing.” Nina stretched. “Let’s wait for Piotr so I’ll have some music.” “Ach. I will make some tea.” She got up slowly, painfully stretching her sore body. She was so proud of her lithe, ill-tempered daughter, but she would not tell her so she would not get a big head. The tea was steeping when they heard the door open, boots getting knocked together to shake off the snow. “Piotr, you’re late,” she teased. “What? No food left?” he answered with a laugh. Then, “Ninochka, you take my breath away,” as he fell to his knees.  She blushed, laughed. “Bratik, give me some music. Mama wants to see me dance.”

Piotr got out his harmonica and started a languorous tune. It was perfect for her to warm up. She improvised a few steps, exhibiting ballon, a lightness in her jumps that was a pleasure to behold.  Progressively, he sped things up, always keeping an eye on her. She finished brilliantly, tears streaming down their mother’s cheeks. Irina got up to serve tea, sniffling. “Tea will be good. It’s cold in here.” Nina got out of her outfit and back into her regular clothes. Her cheeks were red from the effort. “Of course, it will be better outside. It’s cramped here. And I will have a proper choreography. I was thinking half an hour, da? So it’s affordable.” They drank in silence. “Will I be dancing too?” he asked sheepishly. “Who will play the music if you dance?” “Anatoly plays the accordion.”  She said nothing.

“Come to school tomorrow, so we can practice.” He was there, strong and attentive. Near the end, she had him lift her up as she did the swan. He did not falter. He had been his on and off dance partner ever since he took it up himself. He wasn’t the best, but he could be trusted, and she could not afford to pay anybody else. “Did you talk to Anatoly? How much does he want?” They agreed that Piotr would do the bookings and Anatoly would provide the stage and the transport in his van. For now, he would get gas money and his share of the profits. No guarantees. Surprisingly, their idea took off. She had themes and little stories, easy to follow. She started off dancing in front of houses, outside, on the homemade stage they drove around. It was winter, and there was not much entertainment. To have a ballet dancer, seemingly dancing in the snow in front of their home was thrilling.

Nina was the suburbs’ darling. Her idea was unique and she exploited the niche, bringing art to the people. Her success brought her all sorts of attention. She had not anticipated that a rowdy crowd would gather, nor that spectators would ask for so many encores. Things got out of hand more than once. Neighbours gathered outside to watch and cheer, and clap and sing. Vodka bottles appeared from coat pockets and often they had trouble retrieving their stage. She was a sight to see in her white outfit and the accordion was a surprise element that shocked and pleased the audience. On a backdrop of gray apartment building, she shone like a promise. Because of cost, they had planted torches in the snow. It gave a surreal and magical light, creating shadows as the wind blew the flames. Old people loved to be able to watch from their apartment, and she managed to make a name for herself. Soon other artists, pickpockets and buskers joined in and there was no longer enough money to go around. Seedy people tried to extract their cut with threats of retaliation against the family. She reluctantly gave in. Though young, she was no fool and knew that this would afford her some protection.

Graffities started to pop up, depicting her in mid-air doing her signature swan move.  She had become a star in her own right. She danced in front of her parent’s home, too, so the neighbours could boast that they knew her since she was a girl. A fight broke out over who knew her best, quickly quelled with copious amounts of vodka. That performance was her best, though the tension was almost unbearable. It was to be the culmination of her short career. She retired that night to thundering applause. Her mother’s health was failing, and she could not sustain that level of trepidation and lack of sleep. She stopped dancing to care for Irina, and never went back to performing.

Sergei had been an early admirer, never missing a performance. He became a steadfast friend who helped the whole time Irina was sick. They finally married and had little Masha, the light of her eyes. Sergei’s love for Nina transferred to the bottle and, after many fights, she showed him the door. Piotr came to live with his sister and niece, to make ends meet. When Masha was four, she found a beautiful white costume with faux fur in a box under her mom’s bed. It was a angel’s outfit, so soft to the touch. Nina came upon her, as she was stroking it dreamily. “Mashenka, what are you doing?” “An angel came and left this behind.” “Oh, Marusya, that was mine when I was a girl. I used to dance.” Masha settled comfortably against her mama, her eyes shining, still clutching the angel dress. “Tell me the story.” And so she did.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Women’s prison

They put her in jail. She feels protected. At least she killed the bastard. Her life is no longer in danger. She has been in protective custody for over a year. Her bruises have faded and she has put on some weight. She can’t remember a time in her life where she was fed three square meals a day. The other women are no worse than her sisters, her neighbours, her acquaintances. They judge and swear and fight. They are just injured women, abused by men in power. She was hoping for a sorority of sorts and she supposes this is as good as it gets. Sister means I will lie to you and cheat you if it’s good for me. She has no illusions. She is just tired.

She’s on laundry duty. She keeps to herself and doesn’t talk much. The others say she’s stuck up, but really? She couldn’t care less. She just hopes she’ll get visitors this week-end. They promise but can never make it. It’s true that the prison is far from everything. They tried and their car broke down. Towing cost them so much. She knows, she knows. As disappointing as it is, it’s not like she expected her children to make the time. She’s learning to read and write.

She has a pen pal, who makes time for her. It takes her days to figure out what her pen pal wrote. It takes her days to figure out what to answer. And days again to painfully form the letters. It occupies all her waking hours. She is developing opinions and uncovering a mental life she never knew she had. She tells stories from her life. Tell me about yourself, urges the pen pal. Well, there is not much to tell so she makes things up to keep her interested. Her real life is full of pain she would rather not revisit. Do you have any siblings? She had to look that up. Why does her pen pal use those strange words? But she perseveres. The dictionary stays by her side as she tries to keep up.

I had a mother and father though mother was not much of a mother and father did not stick around (she does not elaborate why he was thrown out of the house. If she did, she would have to open doors leading to a dark storeroom where unspeakable things happen). I had two siblings and three half-siblings. Two have died already (a suicide and an overdose – she won’t write about them). One I have no news of. I am estranged from another. Is there one left? Janice, John, myself, Jupiter, Jerry. Oh, I am the fifth sibling.

Enough for tonight. She seals the envelope. Her cellmate is half-crazy. She hides the envelope under her pillow. She prepared the envelope as soon as she received the letter. The guard laughed at her. She had written the prison address in the middle instead of on top. Now she keeps the old envelope with the mistake and the correction so she can do it properly. She loves the ritual. She feels like a proper lady when she writes her envelope. The problem is always the letter itself. She wrote a poem she memorized when she was a kid. For some things, she has a great memory. She thought of writing a song she knows because it’s so beautiful but it doesn’t make sense without the music.

Her pen pal was telling her about wildflowers. She pressed some and put them in her letter. There is still a faint smell and colour. It’s winter and she has flowers that will last her until Spring. Her cellmate is impressed and envious. She cannot return the favour. She has nothing to share. She talks about her neighbour’s cat. It was the most beautiful creature she had ever seen. The cat was called Rose. It had long angora hair which she licked constantly. She walked like a queen. Sometimes, when she gets discouraged about how her life has turned out, that cat is the only bright spot. She imitates her, and walks with her head held high. She tells her pen pal a little about Rose but not the end because she is a street cat and a stray and there is no good ending for a stray, even if she is beautiful. She doesn’t cry because there is no point.

Her pen pal sends her cat pictures which she exchanges for soap and candies. She has a sweet tooth and more cavities than teeth. She hates going to the dentist. She wants them all taken out and she wants to wear dentures. Then she could eat all the candy she wants. She is becoming popular. She asks for more cat pictures. Please send a short-haired black cat picture for my friend Janine. Thank you. And a blue-point Siamese for Karen. Thank you. And a striped one for Conchita. She says thank you too. She is exhausted, but she must take advantage of this wave of interest. It will die soon and she will lose out. Every day the girls talk to her. Did you get a letter yet? Where is my cat? Finally, the letter arrives. The cats are beautiful and she extracts more than she had originally planned. She even gets cigarettes, though she doesn’t smoke. She can trade them for more paper and envelopes.

Inside or outside, you still spend all the time with yourself and that is the most difficult part. If she did not believe in Jesus, she would have followed Jupiter’s example. She knows she’s kidding herself. She would need to be pretty drunk to try and kill herself. She doesn’t want any more pain, only to be left alone. She takes out the soap bars, and stacks them up. She has three – the black cat and the striped cat. She negotiated two for the striped cat because it was a larger picture, cut out from a magazine. It was almost life-size. She wanted to keep it for herself but Conchita was getting hysterical. Conchita is big and strong and rumoured to have a knife though they tossed her cell and found nothing. Still, why take a chance over a cat picture? The soaps smell of lavender. She feels like a lady.

Bull fight

“But he promised!” She glares at her husband. He shrugs. “I promised.” Her whole body says, “How could you?” “You really want to go see a bull covered in blood? You hate blood!” Manolito smiles, a big, innocent, light-up-the-whole-face smile. “Vicente will be there.” As if she could forget. Her oldest, a toreador in training. Another angelic youth, taken up by this crazy passion. He’s been practicing on young bulls, and he’s invited them to come and see him and his buddies. Well, it’s her own fault for marrying into a matador family. “It would mean a lot to him if you came too,” whispers Vicente Sr. She picks up her good scarf, he changes into a good shirt. The boy, well, there’s not much to be done to clean him up. They head out, holding hands through Manolito, swinging him between them, all animosity gone, happy to be spending time together away from chores.

They walk for a time, keeping Manolito in sight as he frolics around. They are in the countryside now, cars far behind, fields ahead. A small crowd of onlookers and hangers on has massed ahead. Manolito’s excitement is contagious. They hurry along. Other parents have come, and kids. Manolito looks at them. “Go,” says the father as he darts off to cluster with a group of children at the far end. She says, “I thought we’d said we’d wait until his birthday. He’s not yet five. I worry about what it will do to him.” “I know, mami. But what’s done is done. It’s in his blood.” He straightens as they come near, addresses the other men, and she joins the women. They chat amongst themselves, some knit, others fuss over kids, most hold a rosary.

A hush falls over the crowd. The young toreadors who had been mingling with their families have been called back and now form a straight line. They make their entrance one by one, with panache, determination, whimsy, focus, depending on their temperament. Vicente is one of the smallest at twelve, all skin and bones, except for his chubby round face. He’s flanked by his best friend Victor. The two Vs are childhood friends. The mothers have been sewing little matador costumes forever. They all have the regulatory cape on hand, but the rest is handmade, dripping with love and care. The boys are resplendent. She’s glad to have come when Vicente’s gaze rests on her and she feels his obvious joy. Now that the athletes have been introduced and seen whole, and clean, the match may begin.

The boys file back out. They’ve learned all the roles and will fill them for each other. It is good for them to understand what a good picador needs to do, so they can appreciate each other. Not everybody will end up a matador. Many are called, few are chosen. She gets pulled in by the dance. The novillos are also being assessed. Young bulls for boys. They are as frightening to the boys as the large ones are for the adults. They are quick and crafty; the danger is real. The younger boys are in the ring, as is one bull, and three adult trainers. One trainer keeps an eye on the bull, one on the boys, and the other ensures overall security and entertainment, keeping an eye out on the audience, lest an inebriated spectator disrupts the proceedings in an attempt to show the youngsters how it’s really done.

It’s a good crew. There’s never been a serious accident on their watch. The entertainer explains the exercises and talks about the novillos’ temperament. The best bulls and the best boys go on to the big scene. You never know who is scouting. There are always rumours and the boys do their best. She sees boys whose names she forgets then Victor, who is more assured now, his moves more precise, his overall technique better. He slips once, loses his footing as the novillo charges close, ever so close. “¡Ole!,” they all chant as he recovers in a flourish of the cape. The crowd is charged. Nothing like a near-miss to get the blood going. Vicente is next. Light on his feet, elegant as a dancer, the focus on his baby face showing the seriousness of the budding man. Her heart expands and shrinks in turn, as pride and fear fight for pride of place.

Vicente does well, Manolito is entranced, hero worship written all over his face. Her gaze goes from boy to boy to man, in a blur of concern, apprehension, joy and relief as the boys finally exit so the older boys can take their place. Everybody stays for the real spectacle. The older bulls, the older boys, not as numerous and definitely more experienced. Both parties are heavier with muscle. The young ones will be lancing the bulls, to get used to the blood and learn to gauge a bull and direct him. She hates that part. As Vicente hits the bull and blood gushes out, she sees something cross his face, a puzzled look as he looks in the bull’s eyes. They circle each other, a silent conversation taking place between them, the crowd a distant memory. He’s losing form, dropping his shoulder. The bull is still. Finally, Vicente leans in again, and quickly removes the lance from the bull’s shoulder. He immediately gets reprimanded but he doesn’t seem to hear, still communing with the bull. He puts his hand on the wound, to everybody’s horror, and instantly gets pulled away and made to sit out the rest of the event, his hand dripping with sacrificial blood.

She rejoins her husband and calls over Manolito. The little family is united in shame. They stay strong and wait for Vicente. Vicente Sr and the trainers discuss seriously. Vicente hands back his cape. Victor is standing by his side, uncomprehending. They walk back home, Victor in tow. The parents are talking in hushed tones. Manolito senses something is wrong. Vicente’s left hand has been hurriedly wiped and is still tinged with the bull’s blood. Manolito is not babbling, but holding both boys’ hands as he’s walking between them, with furrowed brow. At last, Vicente Sr turns to his son. “What happened to you, son?”

The unexpected gentleness of his voice releases Vicente’s tears. He had braced himself for the harsh words, the slap, the condemnation. He is disarmed by the concern in his father’s voice. “I heard the bull cry out when I lanced him. He asked me what he had done to deserve this. He chided me for hurting him. I don’t want to do this anymore,” he pleads. Father and son face each other. Victor is still holding Manolito’s hand. “Well, they won’t have you back, so don’t worry about that.” They resume walking in silence, everybody lost in thought, the matter not really resolved, the boy in limbo. The parents exchange looks. The father tries again. “Bulls don’t talk, you know that? What you heard were your own thoughts.” “No, papa. I would never have thought that on my own. There is more. He was in pain. I felt his pain in my shoulder, where the lance was.” “It’s a miracle,” she cries out. This doesn’t help matters.

The next day, she heads out to morning mass and stays behind to talk to the priest. He has heard of the disgrace like everyone in the neighborhood. He hears her in confession, which means he will not be able to gossip. She uttered the words and he put on his stole. He agrees that it looks like the child has heard the voice of God through the bull. He tells her to pray for guidance because he is at a loss. Nobody knows if they should treat the boy as a hero or a villain. He was perfectly normal until now, a little bit of a celebrity, but now has brought shame to his family. Victor is still training, but Vicente stays home and minds an ecstatic Manolito. Other kids taunt him “Is the cat talking to you?” “The rooster?” He surprises himself and everyone else by answering simply, “Yes.” He seems to have lost his ability to lie, and he makes liars of all of them. They resent him and admire him for that. His is not an easy path.

Adults give him their grudging admiration, then turn the faucet full on. He’s still a nice kid, the Vicente who loves to laugh and is quick to help. Maybe they have a saint in their midst? The priest is non-committal, but people start talking of little events, happenstance maybe, who is to say. They wish he would take on the mantle of saint. They need a label to affix to him, this strange boy with the bloody hand.

 

Don’t speak ill of the dead

Nobody liked my grandpa, but you’re not supposed to speak ill of the dead, so nobody ever mentioned him. Even in my dreams, nobody would pronounce his name. He would sit at a long table, where everybody was talking and eating, and he would bend his head over his food, grateful to be admitted to the table, gulp down his meal then slink away. The first time, I asked who the man was beside Nana. My uncle’s kind eyes fled from his face and little soldiers took their place. “Your nana’s husband,” he spit behind gritted teeth. I was prevented from asking anything else by the mask that had descended on his face and the dread that had filled me. The room was deadly quiet as I considered my options. I was curious to know more but did not want to become a pariah. I sensed this was a pivotal moment. I had to choose my camp. Self-preservation kicked in and I averted my eyes from the old man’s gaze. Conversations resumed, and the moment passed.

It was years later that another dream lent itself to a rapprochement. I was a teenager by then and the dream was a fantastical one, full of adventures and twists. At one point I was falling down off a cliff and I thought, not that I would die if I touched the ground, but that I would die not knowing who my grandpa really was. Then and there my fall slowed down and, as I flapped my arms, I slowly rose and flew to an isolated island where the old man lived. I alighted and stood there watching him. He was tending pigeons with tender care. They were white, I thought they represented peace. My curiosity was intact and we were alone. I uttered his name and the pigeons skittered as though I had thrown gravel in their midst. The man looked at me but he had no mouth. I remember thinking he could not bite me.

I was not yet a man, still foolish and unaware of the ills of the world. I had the sense to approach him as you would a wounded animal. I looked away and made my way softly. There was no hurry in my stride and I did not crowd him. I stopped a few paces away and looked down at my feet. The soil was sandy with grasses bent down by the wind. I could feel the breeze on my cheek, and the sun. I waited. I was hoping he wanted to make my acquaintance. His shadow at my feet, his hand on my shoulder, a soft pressure then nothing. The shadow was gone, the hand, the pressure. I felt a mixture of sadness and hope, those complex emotions that come to you all at once when you’re growing up. I tried to unravel the strings of them, looking at each strand and naming them. Love, and fear, and hope, and curiosity, and impatience, and a sense of injustice.

I scoured the house for photos and pestered my mom with questions. “I burnt all the pictures. Your grandfather was evil.” I told her my dream. “You were lucky he had no mouth. Don’t let him talk to you. Don’t accept anything he gives you. Promise me.” Her tone was at once desperate and firm. I said nothing and turned to leave. Her voice was cold when she repeated, “Promise me.” I promised, seething, my cheeks burning in shame, angry at my cowardice. Of course, I continued thinking of him, but the need was not as urgent as before. We had made contact. I thought of him as my ally. I had been told I looked like him from members outside the family, with a certain reserve. They searched my eyes to probe my soul. They found nothing but solid rock. I disliked porosity and softness. A polished surface with no asperities, casting no shadows, was my ideal. My body was the same, sculpted with hard muscles and an uncompromising stare. Gone were my light boyhood days. I had the seriousness of an adult. I wanted to make weighty decisions and start grappling with the world.

The old man again showed up in a dream, as I was preparing to marry. The lass was a redhead, with shifty eyes and distrustful mouth. I knew in my bones it was a mistake, but she was pregnant and I believed the child was mine. I was ready to do the honourable thing, even if it meant being miserable for the rest of my days. He cast his shadow between us, and everywhere we went his shadow divided us. When I woke up, I walked over to her parent’s house. The sun was not yet up, but I could not wait. I had to share my decision with her. As I approached through the field, I saw a shadow climbing out of her window. It was a man my age, in her circle of friends, always milling about and laughing at her jokes. I caught up with him. He smelled of her and I knew at once the child was his. I went onto the road and blocked his path. “Recognize the child and marry her,” I intimated, “or you will live to regret it.” I could tell he was shocked. His head was still beside hers on her pillow and he could not reconcile the bulk of my formidable presence with her willowy body. He swallowed and shifted on his feet.

We stood apart the length of 30 paces, as though for a duel. He was no match for me. We looked at each other square in the eye. My arms were crossed on my chest. I was blocking his way. Behind me the sun was rising, creating a red halo around my silhouette. Behind him the fields were ablaze in that first light. I had a vision of the fires of hell. He acquiesced. I said, in a threatening voice, “Promise.” He cleared his throat and in a voice he wanted assured said, “I promise.” They were married after the harvest. I never dreamt of my grandfather after that day, nor strove to speak his name again.

The Myth of Sisyphus revisited

It’s a little-known fact that Sisyphus was married. Condemned to roll a boulder to the top of a mountain and see it roll down the other face, and have to roll it up again day in, day out was his punishment for cheating the gods. He was ashamed at having been tricked into this eternal punishment and had not confided in his wife. He was always late for supper and she was sick and tired of his excuses.

One day, she followed him surreptitiously to find out what he was doing all day. She suspected he had a mistress since he came back in a funny mood and too exhausted to take care of his manly duties. He must roll a heavy boulder up a mountain for eternity… Having finally understood the issue, she took pity on him.

When he came home, he ate a simple but filling meal. She had prepared a hot bath with herbs for him to soak in and loosen up his muscles. He relaxed into it gratefully. He was so tired that he fell asleep, dreaming of the thunder of rolling boulders. While he was sleeping, she ran to the mountain to analyse the situation.

First, she had a good long look at the boulder. It was immense, and she could not budge it. She wondered again how he managed to find the strength to roll it up but, more importantly, how he had the willpower to start over every time. She loved the fool dearly and wanted to help. There was no one on the mountain and she started the steep ascent slowly, looking right and left for clues. She could see his habitual path, well worn and devoid of pebbles, all crushed into sand under the enormous weight of the rock. She shuddered and kept going, all senses on alert. He would need better sandals, for one. She made it to the top, after much effort. There was little room to rest. It was a peak – no wonder the boulder could not stay on top. She looked to see if there was any way to flatten it, so it would rest. That would be a big job.

She saw the sun set. She had very little daylight time left and hurried down carefully. There was no point in spraining an ankle. She would be of no use to him. She came back in the house. Sisyphus was snoring in the tub, and the bath water had cooled. She roused him and put him to bed where he slept the sleep of the dead.

The next morning, he was out the door, a little less stiff, grimly determined to do his duty lest the gods seek revenge on his family. His wife had prepared him lunch and given him coca leaves to munch during the day, to dull the pain. There was a good breeze at the top of the mountain and it cooled him off and dried the sweat off his body. Heading home, he was almost happy for a good day’s work. He was starting to feel pride in his work and was less tired than usual. Also, his wife had been uncommonly nice, and he felt a certain tenderness in his heart.

By the door was a new pair of sandals. He did not wish for visitors and was a little irritated. The table was set for two and his wife was in a great mood. Seeing he wasn’t, she inquired at his displeasure and was happy to understand he was jealous. She explained his sandals were worn out and she had decided to call in a favour from the sandalier. They were his. Ashamed at his thoughts and touched by her kindness, he explained what had happened to him and that he was condemned to roll a boulder up a mountain for eternity. They cried in each others arms, harbouring no thought of trying to deceive the gods again by planing the peak or wedging the boulder. The next day was better than the previous. Sisyphus had the strength of his wife’s love to add to his courage.

The gods were getting restless. They had thought to punish this human for his craftiness, but he was outsmarting them by submitting meekly to their folly and rage. To add insult to injury, the couple was growing fonder in adversity. Unbeknownst to Sisyphus, his wife had decided to petition the gods. She figured they needed a way to save face if they were to release him from punishment. She thought she would use reverse psychology, as the gods were not as smart as they thought they were. She managed an audience with Zeus. On her knees, she explained how deeply unhappy she was that her husband had turned into a workaholic. He took pride in rolling this stupid boulder up the steep mountain. He said he was getting a workout and the girls were admiring his new body. He was looking forward to work, and loved nothing better than admire the sunset at the end of each day. Zeus thought long and hard and came up with the worst punishment he could think of.

Sisyphus was called to Zeus and ordered to immediately retire. He was to spend the rest of his days idle, a life of leisure devoid of meaning. And thus modern society was born.

The Grave Robber

 

His father had had great plans for him. Tomás showed promise, as he was bright and friendly. The father was keen on showing his son the world. He brought him along on his business trips, as he expanded his trade across the neighbouring town. The boy was able with horses. They pulled their wares in a wagon, father and son walking alongside Suerte when climbing hills to lessen the load. They took such road trips as frequently as possible, enjoying each other’s company, the boy growing into a fine fellow. His father had hopes that he would become a doctor, marry, and that he would welcome his parents into his home where they could live out the rest of their lives surrounded by grandchildren. They often talked about this dream, adding details as they went along. The father had put aside money for Tomás to study abroad. Tomás had been accepted in a good school, and his parents had thrown a party to celebrate his new life. Family and friends were there. A mustachioed Tomás was beset by slender girls with jet-black hair. He was rumoured to be on the cusp of greatness.

 

His father was in his study, on the second floor of the house, overlooking the party. The coroner determined that a person or persons unknown had pushed him into the window and he had fallen to his death, drink in hand. Tomás felt responsible for his father’s demise. After the funeral, his mother was adamant that he carry out his father’s wishes. He was exiled to medical school, but his heart lay back home. Better for him to have stayed home and taken over his father’s business. But that was not his destiny. Alone on foreign soul, he was laughed at for his proud mustache and mascada, which he wore without fail. Tomás got into fights and was knocked out cold after he had had one too many. When he came to, he found he had developed a stutter. He retired into muteness. Though a diligent student, he found his mind wandering back to that fateful evening where his pre-ordained life had dissolved into chaos.

 

Tomás was close to his pathology professor. He stared at the cadavers without emotion, and did not flinch when called upon to move them. He was a sturdy no-nonsense lad. To make a little money on the side, he started helping the man who wheeled the corpses in, right down to the man who procured them. As his fellow students were cramming for exams or out partying all night, Tomás had other reasons to be bleary-eyed in the morning. His side gig was taking over his life. His grades were falling, and no one was surprised when he dropped out of school. The “Mexican” never fitted in; he was moody and reserved. Esmeralda was the only one whose eyes still looked out for the dashing silhouette of his countryman, who cut a fine figure with his mustache and soft eyes. She knew of his speech affliction and subsequent muteness but was still surprised when he failed to appear at school.

 

Though she never saw him, she did not give up on him. There were rumours that he had become a desperado, but she dismissed them as she had dismissed the other unflattering stories about him. The stories became larger than life. He was said to be mounting wild bucking stallions and turning them into docile creatures. More troubling were the ones about him riding a large white horse in the cemetery, their ghostly silhouettes blended into one, a real-life don Quixote peopling her dreams. Esmeralda took to strolling the cemetery grounds in the hope of catching a glimpse of him. She did not admit as much to herself, choosing to believe the quiet surroundings were a welcome break from her busy life. One evening, she found herself far from the gate as night was falling. She had wandered off in a section she did not know well and had lost her bearings. Seeing a freshly dug grave and movement around it, she decided to ask for direction. It was dusk and getting spooky. As she approached, she did not hear the sound of voices, just a soft, methodical swishing. Earth being moved or removed. She hid behind a large headstone, crowned with the larger-than-life statue of an angel. The angel comforted her as the man left in the dark, his job done. She could not muster up the courage to run after him, but decided to follow him from afar.

 

Before she got out of her hiding place, she heard a soft neighing behind her. Looming in the dark, a white horseman with a magnificent mustache was surveying the scene. She stood transfixed as Tomás walked past the headstone and towards the freshly dug earth. He dismounted and tied his mount to a tree. He changed into dirty coveralls, covered his mouth with his mascada, then disappeared in the hole. The man before had indeed removed the earth. She heard scraping noises, then a heaving. She could not see but dared not move. A sickeningly sweet smell filled her nostrils. She heard a soft thud, a muttering like a prayer. A dark silhouette was now filling the hole with practiced strokes. Once filled, he placed a single rose on the dirt, signed himself and picked up a bag. He got out of his dirty clothes and headed for the horse. She sneezed. He froze and slowly turned towards the headstone. “W-w-w-who goes the-the-the-there?” Foolishly, she answered “Knock-knock.”

 

He finished securing the bag. The coverall was gone, he was all in white again. He mounted the horse and headed her way. She stayed under the protection of the marble angel. He looked at her, and she melted under the kindness of his eyes. He extended a hand and she gave her his. He kissed it and dismounted. “Señorita,” he said then looked at the mare. She accepted his offer and saddled the horse. She was light. He walked beside the horse down a narrow path through dense woods. She was not afraid until they came to a stop in the darkest part of the woods. “Espérame,” he commanded. She waited, the warmth of the docile mare seeping through her clothes. She heard him talking, stuttering in English, his voice tense and unhappy. She heard rustling and a disagreement. She realized she’d been praying under her breath, something she hadn’t done in years. He came back, and took the reins again. The bag was gone from the saddle.

 

She tried “Toc toc…” “¿Quién es?” “Juan…” “¿Juan quién? ” ”Juan, two, three…” He grimaced a smile, tried again and laughed. They had come to a low wall. She climbed off the mare and onto the wall. He nimbly jumped up the wall and down the other side, holding out his arms. She descended onto his body and they briefly embraced. She was on the sidewalk. Further down were streetlamps. She oriented herself and turned back. “¿Hasta luego?” He bowed deeply and nodded. He disappeared into the darkness of the cemetery as she headed towards town, praying an altogether different prayer.

Mr. Klein

I stand by my father’s bed. We never had much to say to each other and this is no exception.
– You want water?
– Sure.
I pour a glass. He takes a sip. I figure I should stay at least 15 minutes, then I should be able to leave. I told Marion I was going, hoping she would drop by. Instead, my sister was relieved and said, lightly, “Three’s a crowd.” That’s always been my line, and I could see now how she would have resented all my years of copping out. It was a shock to find our dad sprawled on the floor, in pain, his hip fractured though he’s not that old.
We look grimly at each other. I am eyeing the clock. It’s only been five minutes.
– Are you still in pain?
– Nah, painkillers.
– How’s the neighborhood?
I point at the curtain between the two beds. Dad has insisted on a semi-private room “for company.” He hates people, so I can only assume he’s been frightened out of his wits and fears another fall, another long wait. Dad frowns and pulls me close.
– I think he’s dying, he says in a low voice.
So much for company.
– Why do you say that? I reply in the same hushed tone.
– He’s hardly ever conscious. He moans and groans. The doctor comes and only talks to the nurse. He hasn’t gotten up at all.

Now I’m curious.
– Any visitors?
– Nope.
I suddenly feel righteous. At least Dad has me. Five more minutes.
-They should install the tv tomorrow. Do you want anything in the meantime?
He’s dozing off. I kiss his forehead lightly, as you would a child. His hair has thinned.

I stop by the nurses’ station and enquire about my dad’s roommate. He’s in the last stages of cancer. No family has claimed him. I hear myself say, “When’s the best time to visit? I mean, do you think it would be okay if I visited? Is he sometimes conscious?” The nurse’s features soften. “If you come around 7 pm, we can postpone his morphine until after you leave. Company will do him a lot of good. Thank you.” “His name?” “Mr. Klein.”

I visit Dad the next day. He’s back to his old self.
-The tv’s not working.
I try the remote.
– You have to press here.
– Give me that.
He finds the news channel and starts watching the news. I watch a little with him, then I head over next door.

– Hello, I’m Rick. I’m your neighbour’s son. He wants to watch the news. May I sit with you, Mr. Klein?
He looks at me, non-committal. I stay put. He ushers me in with his chin. We sit in silence. He has pleasant features, though etched in pain.
– May I sketch you?
He looks intrigued, motions at the pillows. I straighten the pillows. He runs the hand without the IV through his hair. I take out my sketchbook. He stays motionless, with a purpose. I draw him in broad strokes, the elongated forehead, the diminutive chin, the fine lips, the fiery eyes and bushy eyebrows.

I show him. He chuckles.
– “It’s good. Rick.” He nods. “It’s good,” he repeats.
– Thank you. It’s for you to keep. What shall we call it?
– The last hurrah.
I write ‘The last hurrah’ and hand it to him.
He points to the bedside table. I place it there, near a picture. I don’t ask. He’s looking at me, but his gaze is faltering.
– Time for your morphine?
He nods. I press for the nurse, who arrives promptly.
– Shall I come back tomorrow?
– Yes, Rick.
I go see Dad. He’s still riveted by the tv and mumbles his comments. I can tell he’s feeling better by the venom he projects.
– I’m off, Dad. Do you need anything?
He waves me away. He’s got his tv.

The next day, I make it earlier to the hospital and slip in to see Mr. Klein.
– Do you need help eating?
He looks up and smiles.
– You could eat my share. I’m just pushing the food around.
I am starving.
– At least eat the soup.
He complies and watches me down the pasta and bread. I look at him guiltily.
– I should have kept the bread for you.
– Eat, eat.
There’s applesauce and Arrowroot biscuits. I push it towards him. He says, “Take the cookies, they’re too dry.” His appetite is better. I tell him about desserts I liked as a kid. He says he could have applesauce everyday. I put the tray on the floor and push the table out of the way. I can hear the tv sounds from Dad’s side.
– Does the sound bother you?
He answers, “He’s got it running all day, all night.”
It’s loud. I suspect they took out his hearing aids.

– Hi, Dad.
– Rick, you’re early. Aren’t you working?
– I wanted to see how you were doing. The tv’s pretty loud. Let’s get you set up with the earphones and see if we can get the volume down.
I fiddle with it until he’s comfortable. He’s eaten all his food, so I get rid of his tray as well. He’s absorbed by the tv. I leave him to it.

Mr. Klein doesn’t ask me about Dad.
– Better? I ask.
– Yes, thank you.
He’s pretty lively for a dying man.
– How’s the lighting? Are you managing to sleep?
– I would do better with my cap, but I can’t get to it.
I rummage and come back with it. He puts on the cap. He looks dapper.
– Do you want to pose with the cap?
His eyes are softer. They are no longer fighting the harsh light. I push the cap a bit to the side. This time, I draw the boy in him. He gasps when I show him.
– What shall we call it?
– Springtime.
I title it, date and sign. I notice the first one is gone. It’s been a long visit. I bring it to a close. We shake hands.
– See you tomorrow, Mr. Klein.
– Goodbye, Son.

Dad doesn’t hear me leave. He’s got the baseball going.
I come the next day with flowers. Mr. Klein is heavily sedated. A forbidding woman is sitting by his side, her back very straight. I introduce myself and hand her the flowers. She seems to need them. I go and see Dad.
– The tv’s too small. I could hardly see the ball yesterday. I’m ready to leave. They say I have to do physio. I’ve been getting up and exercising but I’m supposed to always wait for help. They’re afraid I’ll break something
– Did Marion come by?
– Marion? Yes, she says hi. She missed you yesterday. She says to wait for her today.
I start sketching him.
– When are you going to get a real job? None of that doodling.
I put my pad away. We stare at each other.

I hear the woman getting up next door. She stops at the foot of my father’s bed. “You have a good son.” She leaves with the bouquet. I catch up with her in the hall.
– You drew those pictures, yes? You have made him so happy. He is dying, you know. But now, he is lighter. Your visits make him happy.
– He’s in pain today?
– Yes, they had to increase his dose.
– I will sit with him until my sister comes.
– Thank you, I must leave now. For work.
I take out my pad and sketch his dreams. He is playing the fiddle in a field. People are dancing. Dogs are trying to get a bite from a table full of food. I leave the drawing on his bedside.
Marion has arrived, and Dad and she are arguing. She wants him to turn off the tv so they can talk. I intervene.
– Dad, you’ve got a better tv at home. Maybe we can discuss ways to get you there sooner.
I’ve got his attention. We agree on a plan that Marion will discuss with his medical team tomorrow. If they agree, we can take him back home. We leave Dad to his tv.

During the night, I get a phone call from the nurse. “Mr. Klein is asking for you. I think it may be time. Will you come?” I hurry to the hospital. They’ve moved Mr. Klein to a private room. His breathing is laboured. He relaxes a bit as I take a seat by him. I take his hand. It is cold but firm.
– How did you know about the dream?
I look at his blue eyes, the child, the dream, the old man.
– My hand knew.
– Draw again, please.
I look into his eyes and see death. I draw a beautiful woman with a peaceful smile. She has long curly dark hair and tiny feet. I feel music around her. I change the curls to notes. I am immersed in my vision, drawing quickly. I show Mr. Klein the drawing. His eyes are focused and clear. He seems to recognize the woman. “Ah,” he sighs. He takes a deep breath. After a pause, another breath. I have stopped breathing and I am holding his hand. His grip relaxes, his breathing stops. We sit in silence, the drawing on his silent chest.

Dad went home today too.

Love at sea

They met underwater, snorkelling. They were watching a grey-brown nurse shark resting on the ocean floor. They had spotted him from above and decided independently to dive down to get a closer look. He was not flamboyant, did not have interesting colours. Yet, here they were, like kids in a candy store, with that peculiar excitement that comes from seeing something alien and beautiful. The rest of the group had moved on, after a selfie or two. It was relaxing to watch him munch on a coral reef, sometimes catching a fish or a shellfish. The strong jaws crunched rock-hard shells. The pair did not stay long, could not breathe under water. When they surfaced again, eyes gleaming, they looked at each other curiously.

After the activity, the group was herded back to shore and given choices for the rest of the day. They did not exchange anything more than that glance as they were shedding their equipment. He was not so much tanned as weathered. She was bleached by the sun and the wind. They both wore wedding bands but had come alone to the activity. They met again a few days later, early afternoon, each by themselves again, wearing their wedding bands. She was watching a beached jellyfish with sorrowful eyes. He spoke like the rough seas, his words cresting white on the fringes. “Those things sting,” he said uneasily. She replied, abruptly, “They’re not things.” His shadow fell on the jellyfish. “Dead or alive, they still sting,” he said in a gravelly voice. She did not answer. He started walking away. She followed in his footsteps. He was taller than her, his stride longer. He shortened it so she would not need to hurry so much. He could hear her panting. He stopped. “Maybe you could walk in my shadow? The sun is harsh.”

She moved to his side and looked at him. She was using his shadow to shield her eyes and get a better look at him. His face was craggy, distinctive. He wasn’t young, either. She offered, “My girlfriends told me to wear a wedding band so I wouldn’t get hounded at the bar.” He smiled. “And, did it work?” She smiled back, “I don’t hang out at the bar.” They had been walking in an easy silence, trying to adapt their differing strides, passing seashells without giving them a look.  They weren’t good at small talk, decided not to try, were grateful for the quiet company. They parted after over an hour, sated.

The next day, she joined him as he was watching the sun rise on the sea. It wasn’t that early, she couldn’t sleep and had decided to go for a walk on the beach. He had found a spot and was watching expectantly. She stayed a few steps back. He motioned her closer. He was wearing a plain white cotton shirt and khaki shorts, holding his sandals in his hand. She was dressed the same but her white blouse covered a blue bikini top. She looked at his wedding ring finger which was bare and tanned. She raised an eyebrow. The sun was rising, an event that filled her with joy every day. She exhaled, suddenly realizing she had been holding her breath. They let the beauty of the moment fill the space between them, the morning light bathing their surroundings. She took off her clothes and went swimming. He followed.

It took some doing after the vacation. They exchanged emails, spoke at length on the phone. It was funny that they had spoken so little when together, and so much while apart. They enjoyed those leisurely conversations. They shared the minutia of their lives, they made each other laugh and cry. It was frustrating, all this technology between them when they longed to be together. He lived near the water, she in the city. He spoke of the sea like you would a mistress. He abhorred labels, did not consider himself a surfer but rather someone who enjoyed surfing. The sea brought him much joy, in all her moods, though he knew enough to ride her only when safe. He had an app on his phone that indicated where sharks were hanging out. He was still intrigued by them, kept a respectable distance from them.

She had a sister that needed looking after, with whom she shared a condo. He was as free as a bird, having little contact with his brother, and being estranged from his parents. Over time, he had dealt with the important relationships in his life and made up his mind about the time he was going to spend on them. He wanted to be with Stella, that much he was sure of. Uprooting himself to a faraway city, that he was not prepared to do. Luckily, Stella was as eager to be with him as he was to be with her. She came for a short visit, a long week-end to which she tacked a few more days. He introduced him to his surroundings, and to a lone friend. They met him at the pier, Diego a carbon copy of Charles, except darker. Charles had a catamaran and moored her there. His lodgings were sparse, Spartan even, except for the books. He had curbed that habit, as much as he could, being a regular at the town library. He surfed, beachcombed, sailed lived simply and fully. Was there room for her? For a future together? They both thought so and resolved to make it so.

She asked for a transfer at work and got it. Her sister kept the condo, but Stella kept paying her share of the condo fees until her sister’s boyfriend moved in. The transfer went well. She had worked remotely with the colleagues at this branch and they got along. She had a place to crash, furnished, boyfriend and all. The honeymoon phase lasted until she found herself unexpectedly pregnant.  She wasn’t sure about having a baby, but he was thrilled. He confessed to having amassed enough to last them a lifetime from his previous incarnation in high tech. He proposed by the sea, on his knees, with the sun rising on the horizon. Instead of a diamond, the ring held a black pearl. Her heart said yes, her mind held her back because she was much younger. Her heart won.

They named their boy Christopher, for Christopher Columbus said one, for the boy Christopher in Winnie-the-Pooh, said the other. Christopher was home-schooled and curious. The three of them sailed together with Diego on the catamaran. Christopher loved the sea. He loved music. His loves combined into a career in marine biology. He thought of becoming a sound studio engineer, after hearing whale sounds. Pragmatism took over. He wanted future generations to experience the beauty of these behemoths first-hand, not just through music. He became their champion, pure of heart and of tongue. He begat two girls, a replica of her mom’s family. He got custody of his daughters, and she felt lucky to babysit them.

They had grown old together, united by their love of the sea. She told Christopher that she had been attracted by his father’s voice, a mermaid’s call that had enticed her to run aground in his arms. Charles confided that he had been charmed by her quiet company. His temper would sometimes flare, like a stormy sea, but she navigated expertly around the reefs, until the calm returned. There was a buried treasure in his words, a lost childhood of gold and ducats that she was privy to. She always saw it shining, even when he lost sight of it.

 

Appropriately, Charles was lost at sea, on his precious catamaran. Only the catamaran was found, drifting, with no sign of him. He would have been happy to have gone that way, embraced one last time by his mistress. Stella’s eyes grew dim, her face lined, her hair lost their shine. He had been her beacon, and losing him she had lost her way. She remembered the salty taste of his sweat, the curls of his hair, his sweet tattoo. For their 10-year anniversary, he had gotten a nurse shark, she an oyster. She had joked, “You crack me up!” Now the shell hardened, the pearl hiding deep within, with no intention of being seen. She dreamt of sharks all the time. They were tender and shy, in turn unassuming and voracious. They cracked shells and spit out their contents or swallowed them whole. Once, instead of a pearl, a green fog had filled the shark’s mouth. She woke up uneasy, wondering if his soul was at peace, what message he was trying to deliver.

She found solace in her grandchildren, especially Sandy, who looked a lot like her grandfather. They spent time together, and she was happy to reminisce because the child did not interrupt, playing intently at her feet, looking up if she stopped. She was like a sponge, absorbing all this information, asking questions days later to clarify a point she could not make sense of. They grew close, the child her old age stick. Stella seemed to regain a bit of her youth, in the child’s presence.  Sandy never tired of hearing the story of the twin tattoos. For the child’s birthday, Stella had showed her another tattoo. It was a pearl, hidden behind her ear, under her hair. “Four people know of its existence: the tattoo artist, me, your grandfather and now you. Happy birthday, Sandy.”

Nobody could beat that present. Sandy kept pirates at bay, protecting the loot fiercely. She confided in her granny when she decided to become a geologist and study fossils. She would regale Stella with her field work and her discoveries. Without Sandy, Stella would have sunk, become a bottom-dwelling being.  It was not a surprise when Sandy inherited the house and its contents. It was hers from the get-go, a house where both grandparents were kept alive, finally able to end their lives together.

Silence

You would have thought they were mute, were it not for their public exchange of vows. Marge and Tom went by the axiom « Silence is golden » and revelled in each other’s quiet company. Their lives settled, devoid of sound. They communicated through exchanged glances, and gentle touches. They laughed a lot, thinking their own thoughts. They were well-liked, not ones to spread gossip but always extending a hand for those in need. They wrote down detailed instructions when that would save time and just left each other notes. It was like a prolonged courtship.

They really did nothing extraordinary, except keep quiet. They went to parties where they both played the fiddle, in perfect counterpoint, one assisting the other, responding with speed and an uncanny sense of beauty. People loved being around them, pouring their hearts out to these willing receptacles. They were thought very wise, with the twinkle in their eyes, and everybody enjoyed their silent company.

They were of even character, and not prone to outbursts. They had reserved one hour a week where they actually spoke to each other. The rarity of the occurrence made it that more much precious. They realized that the things that had made them mad during the week were often trivial and not worth mentioning, just a surge of emotion with no real foundation. They thought deeply on what they wanted to share orally in this limited time. They rarely found a reason to go back to something in the week to clarify, or ahead, for that matter. They had no inclination for idle chatter. They played music together, or cards in the evening. They read in companionable silence, leaving bookmarks or annotations for each other. They would exchange witticisms in the margins – their library was enriched by their joie de vivre.

One week, Marge proposed they get themselves a songbird. She had been reading about it and was enamoured with the idea. She floated the idea, full of hope, but did not press her point. She was ready to wait for his answer, as their schedule was paced weekly. Of course, Tom gave it serious consideration. Anything that was brought up in that hour gave them food for thought for the week ahead. He had time to research it, think things through, answer his own objections. He also observed his wife and saw that she was not anxious, nor pressing him in any way.

Unfortunately, his father fell very sick. Tom’s mom had already passed away and there were no surviving siblings. Father was uncaring and mean, but he was still his father. No neighbour wanted to care for him, and so the couple took him in. The songbird discussion was put on the back burner as they did their best to salvage the mean man. He was loud and obnoxious, and the strain showed on the couple. When Marge would come to tend to him, he sometimes hollered “Get out! I want my son in here with me!” Being quiet was no longer a joy but a necessity, as they found themselves riding on negative emotions.

Their weekly hour was all the more sacred. They would leave the house and walk together, unable to avoid talking about the man who had invaded their intimacy. He was weighing them down, robbing them of their joy, of the quiet. Madge asked about the songbird, Tom acquiesced, desperate to atone for the presence of his father. “Do you want me to buy it for you next time I go in town?” They could no longer drive in town together. There must be someone at all times with the father. She agreed. They hoped that the bird would cheer them up and make this difficult period more bearable.

Tom prepared himself for the trip to town. Lists were made, edited, thought about. Getting the bird was a little luxury. They felt they owed it to themselves to take steps to lighten their mood. Their house was small. Father’s bed was near the kitchen stove to warm his brittle bones. Still he coughed and complained. Cats roamed at will, coming in the house for a change of scenery. They had made themselves scarce since the old man moved in.

Finally, Tom came back with a magnificent lyrebird. It was an odd choice, but the bird man had convinced him that the exotic bird would be a perfect companion. It could sing better than any other bird alive. This particular one was a youngster, still listening more than whistling, but if the couple was unhappy with the bird, they could return it, no questions asked. They made him a place with the chickens, and he roamed as he pleased with them during the day, feeding on small insects and the occasional frog. He learned to cluck like his fellow mates and was a joy to behold with his gorgeous tail. He liked Marge’s company and would hang around the kitchen window, sometimes following a fly into the house and eating it.

After a long agony, Father finally passed away. They lived in a small community. They laid him to rest in a casket in the front parlour, where their friends came to pay their respects. The whole town gathered and there was much noise, but a deathly silence fell when his voice was heard “Get out! I want my son in here with me!” The lyrebird had chosen this time to display his talents.

The Garden

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

Betsy’s colours are slowly returning.

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

– What? You can’t be serious!

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

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

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

***

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

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

Blind

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Dogsville

Buddy lived with two humans, devoted to each other. It was always easier getting a pair of them. They kept each other company and did not try to run out as soon as you got ready to leave the house. You weren’t as concerned that they would be lonely in your absence. Those were older and rather quiet. When he had to leave them behind, Buddy usually left the radio on. They seemed to enjoy classical music the most; he kept the volume low.

 

Kramer saw Buddy from afar and wagged his tail. His humans were rather tall. He too got a pair, for the same reason. Granted, they cost more in food and incidentals but they cuddled together, played and worked side by side, and seemed generally content with their lot. Sometimes, you really got the impression they were communicating with each other. Kramer had gotten the female a red leather handbag, and she filled it with her possessions and brought it with her everywhere they went. It was really cute. Kramer and Buddy greeted each other and chatted about the derelict house, near the train tracks. It was all anybody could discuss.

 

Soon, Fifi joined them, with one of her humans. “Where is the fat one?” they inquired. “I left him home,” she replied. “He’s getting slow and I wanted to catch up with you. He can no longer keep up,” she said sadly. “Do you think he’s in pain?” asked Buddy. “I don’t know. He’s slower getting up. It seems to be his hip. I put painkillers in his food, but he knows. He eats all around it but won’t take the pill. I have to shove it down his throat.” They chuckled sympathetically. “She’s fit, though,” they continued, pointing at the female. Like Fifi, she was well-groomed and perky, the pride of the pack. Kramer’s male paid her lots of attention. His female looked bored. They walked together, talking.

 

Buddy was on his way to the groomer’s. He grew shaggy between haircuts and was overdue. That explained why he had left his humans behind. It was better for them to stay in the comfort of their homes. They got bored at the groomer’s, and started pestering him before too long. He had learnt his lesson. Still, he felt awkward walking by himself and was glad for the company. They headed in the same direction, commenting on the interactions between their humans. When you had nothing to say, you could always laugh at your human’s antics.

 

They passed by Laika’s home. Laika was a beautiful dalmatian, tall and elegant. Her humans were well-behaved. She had three, which was a handful. She had kept an offspring. It was often a good idea, because the parents tended to be less trouble after a birth. They were more tired, looking after the baby. They got attached very quickly and Laika did not have the heart to take it away from them. She had named the baby girl Pat, a good soft name. The baby did not yet react to it. That was okay, it was a long process with humans, but she was patient.

 

Buddy detached himself from the group as Kramer and Fifi had decided to go to the park to socialize their humans. They could roam freely there. He hurried along; he hated being late. He still had to go past the derelict house, which he dreaded. It was an eyesore. Humans had taken over, and the grounds were infested with squirrels. From the corner of his eye, he saw a curtain move. A human was looking out from the upstairs window. He seemed sad. One would be, without a good dog to take care of you.

 

He should bring the matter up again at the next town meeting. This state of affairs should not be allowed to go on. The humans were teenagers, at that difficult age when you are full of energy and need a firm hand to guide you. Sometimes they could be seen roaming at night, slinking in shadows looking for food. Next thing you know, more would join in and they would start making trouble. He sighed. Rocky had been a hermit, and it took the townsfolk a while to realize he had passed away. In the meantime, a posse had formed, whose sole interest seemed to be to rile the good citizens of Dogsville. A few of the humans were on the porch, smoking. They had spotted him; he could hear them talking in low voices. One whistled at him, derisively. “Here, boy,” barked another. His body stiffened, his ears perked up, but he did not look their way. He would not give them that satisfaction. He was suddenly self-conscious of his long unkempt coat. He gladly stepped into the groomer’s store with its tinkling bell and its “No humans allowed” sign.

 

“Good day,” he said to no one in particular. They were all in various states of grooming, getting bathed and shampooed, trimmed or pedicured. It smelled nice and there was always an abundance of treats and snacks. The service was excellent – everyone kept coming here, even though the neighborhood was going to the humans. “Hey, Buddy,” said the owner. They had known each other since they were pups, had rolled in the mudholes together and fought over girls. “You’re overdue for your trim,” he said reproachfully. But then, “How is your baby girl?” He took out pictures. Everybody huddled around to have a look. “They’re so cute when they’re small.” “Look at her little toes,” said another. “It makes you want to adopt,” said a third, amongst the general oohs and ahhhs. He smiled proudly, basking in reflected glory. “She’s starting to crawl,” he announced. “Better keep out of the way. Her teeth will be coming out soon!” They laughed. “Are you getting enough sleep?” “It’s a challenge,” he admitted, as he settled down for his shampoo. All his cares washed away. Even the threat of the teenagers felt moot.