Open Mic

You come for the magic, when time stands still as you bare your soul. Your soul does not always want baring and sometimes you sing only with his voice, and that is fine, but not magical. When your soul is ready to open up, lovelier than a flower, you transport your audience to the magical place where music takes you. It’s unique, to be sure, as your soul is unique to you. Music takes you to this moment where your soul vibrates and unleashes dreams and visions and emotions that make you forget that other reality in which you spend your days.

It is quite a feat, and you approach the moment with gravitas, well aware of the responsibility on your shoulders. It is with some trepidation that you plug in your guitar. You’re nervous and start playing without introduction. The first song is just a greeting. You get acquainted with that night’s crowd and see how they respond. You’ve prepared four songs, and will sing three according to a complex calculation of nerves and audience and soul. The first one is a no-brainer “I want you to want me”. It’s self-explanatory, and gets people swaying in their chairs, even if they don’t know it. They’re an older crowd, they haven’t grown up with it. Still, they’re game and enthusiastic. You relax into it. You introduce your next song, and yourself, “Joe” with a bit more confidence. We’re only doing guitar here, maybe a bass or harmonica to accompany, and voice, of course.

You sing “I’m Calling You” from Bagdad Café which has always been your favourite, with its haunting lyrics. It’s not really country music but it speaks of the desert and longing. The crowd is less rowdy, more reflexive. Someone joins you and replaces the saxophone part with his harmonica to pinch people’s emotional chords. You end your set with King’s “It’s Too Late”, a crowd favourite. You’re looking for accolades. Your soul was skittish tonight, and stayed hidden. Still, you got something of a rush when everybody joined in the chorus, belting “But it’s too late, baby now, it’s too late”. They’re all sensitive and prone to the blues. They get it.

You quickly exit to the back of the restaurant, where the guy from the previous act is still steadying his nerves. There’s a pack of cigarettes out there. It’s nobody’s, just medicine. You inhale, exhale, and the trembling subsides. You don’t talk. It’s easier that way to find your center again. You come back in, not having exchanged a word with your compadre. You slip your guitar in its case. How you recognize the case is anybody’s guess. They’re all lined in the corridor jostling for top spot, black and innocent-looking. Some of these babies enclose the finest specimens. Yours is the best you can afford and it does a decent job. You convince yourself that the instrument is not important, yet you still eye the expensive ones.

Another musician has been playing and you sit down with a beer to enjoy the rest of the evening now that you’ve done your share. A lucky performer gets a high five, a couple gets up to dance near the end of the evening. They’re mostly white-haired, the ones with even teeth sporting dentures, the women singing with their husbands, shooting them adoring looks to boost their confidence. The voices are strong, lyrics scrolling off iPads, or printed neatly on paper. Tonight, old folks’ ailments are gone. The place is packed in the smell of memories and the vibes of youth. It’s already 10 o’clock. Time to head home…

Knitting Wars

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

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

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

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

Paper

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

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

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

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

Take Me to Your Leader

– Take me to your leader, it said.

– What are your intentions? I replied.

– Terminate.

– I see. Why is that?

– It is killing the Blue Planet.

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

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

– Will you give me a ride?

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

– You are sending happy vibrations, stated the Being.

– Can you tell me what your plan is?

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

– Why now? Where do you live?

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

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

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

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

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

– We understand jokes, he said proudly.

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

– What is your name?

– Tiktak. What is your name?

– Ali.

Properly introduced, we continued our conversation.

– Ali, why were you emitting sadness and regret?

– I am contributing to the destruction of my kin.

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

– Who are your kin? Kitkat asked softly.

I looked up and around the vast cabin.

– How can I help? I answered.

Sorority

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poison

The recipe called for a cup of poison. She cut it down by half. There would only be 7 ladies, plus herself, for the afternoon bridge. And others would bring food. She was known for her treats. The ladies always clamoured for more and she obliged though she herself stayed away from them. She had noticed the first signs of poisoning amongst the most enthusiastic consumers. They complained of joint pain which they put down to aging, the great equalizer. She believed it impacted memory as well, and frowned when her partner indulged, which was seldom. She wanted a crisp mind on her team when they played cards. She was intent on winning at all cost.

The young ladies who served them sometimes developed acne. She knew this to be another of the signs so could tell when the help was helping themselves to the poisoned foods. She took it all in and said nothing. She herself abstained, pretexting an upset stomach. She did not suffer tooth decay, sluggishness or irritability, all signs her addicted companions showed. Their waists were also widening she noted. They said it was bloating and tried combating it by drinking tea, liberally sprinkled with poison. She wondered why it was legal.

The first casualty took a while to happen. It was a slow-acting poison. Her heart gave out and we all rushed to her bedside. She was quite large by then, her joints aching, and irritable to boot. It might have to do with the painful inflammation throughout her body. We had to find her replacement for our weekly game. It was someone from the other table, as my group of four was focused and healthier. The other table did not take the game as seriously. They indulged in gossip and poison.

The new lady was the youngest and she offered to prepare tea for them. She almost spit it out when she tasted the poison in it, then remembered Mithridates who ingested small doses aiming to develop immunity. She noticed no ill effect but started taking hot water with lemon from that day forward. The others made good-natured fun of her and she replied amicably but did not alter her behaviour.

When she ran out, she went to the grocery store and asked for a new bag of it. She always thought she would get arrested, but the police never showed up, though little by little the ladies’ health faltered. She and her partner won all the games.

Scrambling

The mountain was watching me as I strolled confidently to its base. I had studied it intensely over the last few weeks and I knew its outer layer well. I was here to get acquainted from the inside out. I had no gear, save a helmet and soft-soled shoes. I did a bit of calisthenics, to warm up and settle my nerves. We would soon be entering into combat, and I wanted to come out of it alive. A camera crew was in place. Some of them would be climbing alongside me, in the traditional way, with ropes and so on. They were trying to blend with the rock as much as possible. I blocked them out of my mind’s eye.

Preparation is key, yet it is mostly preparation of the self. The goal is clear: summit alive. You can plan your route ahead, but you will have to readjust on the details. There may have been a slide or other recent phenomena. Your mountain is a living, breathing beast. I was still feeling antsy after stretching so did the next best thing. I ran full tilt to the mountain and jumped. I was strong, with powerful arms and legs. I grappled the wall and pushed and pulled myself up a few meters. It felt good. I could feel the rock pulsating under me. It was daybreak and the surface was not yet warmed by the sun. My assault had woken the behemoth and were now both aware of each other. I settled into a rhythm.

I am keen on meditation and scrambling, as I call what I do when scaling a mountain, is a form of meditation I love. I call it “extreme meditation” because you need to trust yourself fully, relax into the present, yet be aware at all times of your mortality. A drop from the wall is not advisable. If I did fall, I would see that as a failure to make friends with the mountain. The mountain would have shrugged me off. Mountains are friendly, and love company, as long as you treat them with respect. I was being playful when I ran to it at its base, and wanted to establish our relationship on those terms. In the same way that I roll on the floor with kids or dogs, playfully tickling, biting, and tussling, the mock fight is just that, mock. We know when to stop and are careful not to hurt each other.

I am relying heavily on my nose to know if the rock has been infiltrated with water. It will alert me to rot which could undercut its ability to bear my weight. My skin informs me of changes in temperature, sharp edges a recent scar and potential for falling rocks. I go for rounded textures, sculpted by wind and time. If you press your ear to the stone and you hear it sing, you must beware. The tiny vibrations that are so enticing mean the rock is brittle. You learn to trust silence and project yourself in that void.

The crew told me later that their vision of me flipped early on from me tackling a vertical surface to me moving on all fours on the ground. It is true that early on, my weight was no longer a consideration. I felt bound to the wall, my fingers strong and sensitive to the changing surfaces. I could anticipate the bumps and cracks, reading the surface and as I would read a friend’s expressions. We were communicating pleasure and displeasure. I felt the mountain holding me and guiding me. The last meters to the top were more arduous, and I think now it is because the mountain could sense my reluctance to have our association end. I was enjoying the tussle and occasional nip, leaving a few drops of blood as proof of my passage.

I was getting tired and wanted to summit. I knew I must guard against any type of hurry. There was a path, like one goats might have used if they had lived in those parts. It was tempting, with tufts of grass that would cushion my tired feet. But grass means moisture, water infiltration and possible rot. I looked up at the overhang and decided to get down from the ledge and around. From there, it was a cakewalk. Before I knew it, I was hoisting myself up and rolling on top. Summit! The sun was shining and the breeze cooled me down and dried my sweat. I could see another mountain in the distance. I still had many friends to meet.